There have been many occasions when Jose Mourinho has driven his team on in the closing stages of a European tie in search of the goal that will change the match, but nothing typified his desperation tonight like the scurry down the touchline to retrieve one long Schalke clearance into touch.
The Chelsea juggernaut that has cleared a path through the Premier League this season had been stopped embarrassingly in its tracks by a German team in domestic disarray, 16 in the Bundesliga and without a win yet this season.
It was hard to understand just how Chelsea failed to win this game, other than that even the most depleted opponent will try to find a way back into a game when one conspires to miss as many opportunities as Mourinho’s team did. Given the chance to put the Germans away after Cesc Fabregas’ goal in the tenth minute they failed time and again and in the end they paid the price.
There was a marvellous symmetry to the two goals: a foul by Fabregas had been crucial in him scoring for Chelsea. A foul on Fabregas was crucial in the course of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s equaliser. Making the first start of his second spell at the club, Didier Drogba failed at least three times to find the net when presented with good opportunities to do so. It could be worse. This time last year, Chelsea lost at home to Basel in their first group game and still made the semi-finals.
Drogba’s history is the standard that every new striker at Chelsea must match but currently the old boy is no replacement for Diego Costa who was on the bench tonight, and came on as a late substitute. Mourinho revealed after the game that Costa is still nursing his recent hamstring injury through its recovery and cannot yet play every game in Chelsea’s busy schedule. Without him they looked much less dangerous.
It should have been over by half-time as far as Chelsea were concerned, playing against a Schalke side that looked every inch the club that has one point from three games in the Bundesliga, a serious deficit of confidence and a surfeit of injuries.
In those opening passages of play, Chelsea dominated their opponent. Never more so than down the left wing where Eden Hazard demonstrated to the German right-back Marco Hoger that a football pitch can be desperately lonely when you are forever finding yourself in the wrong place. Like a man arriving seconds late for a departing bus, Hoger time and again found himself watching as Hazard left without him.
The dominance that Hazard exerted in that area of the pitch alone should have ensured more goals for Chelsea yet the one they went in with at half-time should never have stood.
It began when the Schalke centre-back Roman Neustadter passed short to Max Meyer, Schalke’s playmaker, in midfield. Fabregas tried to get a toe in to get the ball away but Meyer got their first and all that Fabregas caught was the Schalke man. It was badly late and in many circumstances it would have been a booking but the Croatian referee Ivan Bebek, a late appointment, waved play on.
Hazard had picked the ball up on the left and slipped Fabregas in for his first Chelsea goal. The Schalke captain on the night Huntelaar was booked for his protests by Bebek who must have known by then that he had got it badly wrong.
The road was clear for Chelsea to pin Schalke back and inflict the damage that everyone, the visiting opposition included, expected to come. But the next decent chance they created was almost half an hour after Fabregas’ goal. This time Ramires’ ball with the outside of his foot freed Branislav Ivanovic down the right, he crossed for Fabregas and, unmarked and with a clear sight of goal, he side-footed over the bar.
In the latter stages of the first half, Schalke finally got their bearings and had a good period. They worked the ball well in midfield to create an opening for Kevin-Prince Boateng whose right-footed shot was saved by Thibaut Courtois. Then, just before half-time, the 20-year-old Julian Draxler, the latest generation of Wunderkind, tricked his way into the Chelsea area, bamboozled Gary Cahill with a change of direction and shot wide.
Half-time came to arrest that mild Schalke surge but then Mourinho’s players did not take advantage of the opportunities that came their way at the start of second half, or rather Drogba did not. The old lion of Africa still has his moments but at 36 when the fatigue sets in so the touch tends to go a little wonky.
It was the case on the hour when Hazard’s excellent long ball from the left channel set him free on goal but Drogba’s first touch did not position him well for the required right-foot shot. He managed to get his boot around it but placed the ball wide of goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann’s far post.
Earlier, Drogba had failed to get a connection on a low Willian cross from the right. Hazard had himself shot over after an exchange from Drogba. The half chances that would have settled the game, not to mention more presentable ones, were going begging. There was always a danger that the top-quality elements in Schalke’s team would combine to cause Chelsea damage
So it proved on 62 minutes when, in a moment of supreme equalisation of the outrageous fortunes in a football match, Fabregas was fouled in his own half and lost possession. From there Schalke had a great deal more to do than Chelsea for their first half goal, but executed it perfectly.
Huntelaar, who committed the foul, fed Draxler whose brilliant run forward left Ramires swaying in his slipstream. Huntelaar had made up ground in the left channel, got the return ball, stepped inside John Terry and with a right-footed shot beat Courtois low to his near post. The Croatian referee saw his chance to make a second mistake of equal proportion and allowed the goal to stand.
It prompted an immediate rethink on the Chelsea bench where Oscar was sent on to occupy Fabregas’ playmaker position and push the Spaniard further back. Drogba’s last act was to sky a Ramires cut-back over the bar. Diego Costa and Loic Remy were summoned to replace Drogba and Willian. Then the fun really began.
Draxler had already had a good shot saved. Remy’s shot that looked destined to go in was headed off the line by Neustadter.
Hazard had another volley saved. Terry had a header cleared off the line. At the end the Schalke players celebrated as if they had won it and, remarkably, Fabregas appeared to be complaining to the referee Bebek about the foul on him by Huntelaar.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Courtois; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Filipe Luis; Fabregas, Matic; Ramires, Willian, Hazard; Drogba.
Subs: Oscar/Ramires 67, Costa/Drogba 74, Remy/Willian 74
Schalke (4-2-3-1): Fahrmann; Hoger, Ayhan, Neustadter, Fuchs; Boateng, Aogo; Sam, Meyer, Draxler; Huntelaar.
Subs: Choupo-Moting/Meyer 73, Barnetta/Sam 78, Obasi/Draxler 86
Booked: Chelsea Terry, Willian Schalke Boateng, Hoger
Referee: I Bebek (Croatia)
Man of the match: Hazard
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