Paris St-Germain or Juventus could lie in wait when the draw for the Champions League knock-out stages is made on Monday, but such is Chelsea’s swagger in Europe it is the French and Italian champions who would fear such an encounter. Tonight the Premier League leaders cruised to victory, barely breaking into second gear as they sent Sporting Lisbon into the Europa League. There was even an encouraging glimpse, though just a glimpse, of a home-grown future.
Jose Mourinho played safe in the end, sending his experienced men out to win the game before giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek his much-hyped debut. That they did with Cesc Fabregas, from the spot, and Andre Schurrle putting Chelsea two-up after 15 minutes. John Obi Mikel then killed of a nascent comeback by Sporting with a rare goal ten minutes into the second half.
That Loftus-Cheek did not arrive until the 83rd minute meant the much-touted unveiling of ‘Young Chelsea’ was rather half-hearted. Mohamed Salah and Kurt Zouma, aged 20 and 22 respectively, were given rare starts but with Thibaut Coutois, Eden Hazard and Oscar, all under 24, rested, the team’s average age was much the same as normal. Moreover, as Salah and Zouma only joined in January, for £11m from Basle and £12m from St Etienne, they are hardly emblematic of a commitment to youth.
The future was present, 18-year-old midfielder Loftus-Cheek and goalkeeper Mitchell Beeney, 19, were on the bench. For the latter merely being in the matchday squad was a significant step. With Courtois, Petr Cech and Mark Schwarzer ahead of him that had not happened before at this level.
Beeney would only get on through an injury, Loftus-Cheek would when Mourinho felt there was no risk. Within 16 minutes it looked as if the teenager could start warming up as Sporting meekly gave up a two-goal lead. Filipe Luis, given an outing to allow Branislav Ivanovic a rest (with Cesar Azpilicueta switching flanks) precipitated both goals.
The 29-year-old Brazilian, signed for £15.8m despite his advancing years (in football terms), has struggled to nail down a place since his summer move but he did his chances no harm as he drove into the box in the sixth minute then duped Ricardo Esgaio into a daft challenge. Fabregas, who played in a more advanced role, calmly despatched the spot-kick.
On the quarter-hour Felipe pushed on again, Nemaja Matic picked up possession, and squared to Schurrle. The German easily turned Mauricio and drilled in a low shot that Rui Patricio’s palm could not stop.
Chelsea player ratings vs Sporting
Chelsea player ratings vs Sporting
1/10 Petr Cech
With Chelsea already through as Group G winners, Thibaut Courtois was given the night off and Cech made just his fourth start of the season. He could do nothing about Sporting’s goal but did produce a good save from Islam Slimani’s powerful second-half header. 7/10
2/10 Cesar Azpilicueta
Switched to right back to accommodate Filipe Luis and had a comfortable evening. Booked late on. 7
3/10 Kurt Zouma
The 20-year-old defender impressed after coming on as a substitute against Tottenham and, playing alongside Gary Cahill at centre-half, did well again here. 7
4/10 Filipe Luis
Has found opportunities limited since moving to Stamford Bridge last summer and will struggle to break into the Chelsea side ahead of Azpilicueta. 6
5/10 Cesc Fabregas
Played further forward in the No10 role and put Chelsea ahead from the penalty spot after eight minutes. 7
6/10 Jon Obi Mikel
Put Chelsea 3-1 up with just fifth goal in eight years and his first since January. Did will alongside Matic in midfield. 7
7/10 Nemanja Matic
Chelsea missed Matic against Newcastle and the Serbia international, who has become a key player for Jose Mourinho, was a commanding presence in midfield. 7
8/10 Mohamed Salah
Had a rare opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho but did little and was substituted after 70 minutes. 5
9/10 Andre Schurrle
Scored his first goal since September to double Chelsea’s lead in the firs half, but then his weak header was punished by Jonathan Silva for Sporting’s goal. Replaced by Ramires after 73 minutes. 7
10/10 Diego Costa
Still looking for his first Champions League goal. Had a quiet evening. 6
It could easily have been 3-0 and game definitively over on the half-hour. William Carvalho, on the radar of many a Premier League club but looking out of his depth, cheaply conceded possession. Chelsea moved it to Diego Costa who fed Salah. His cut-back cross found Matic sprinting in, but the Serb curled his shot just over.
Given Sporting knew defeat would send them out if Schalke 04 won in Slovenia against Maribor the visitors were surprisingly subdued. They began to get numbers forward but Cech was rarely discomfited as Chelsea ended the half in full control.
The off-field focus was already crystalising around the question of when would Mourinho blood Loftus-Cheek? He remained on the bench when the teams returned for a second half and the prospects of an early arrival diminished when Sporting unexpectedly scored. Andre Carrillo, given far too much space by Felipe Luis, delivered a deep cross that rebounded kindly off Schurrle’s back to Jonathan Silva who volleyed precisely into the corner.
But for a fine save by Patricio Salah would have quickly restored Chelsea’s lead following a strong run by Schurrle. Ten minutes into the half Chelsea did score, and it was a collectors’ rarity. Cahill flicked on a set-play and Mikel, barely onside, arrived at the far post to stab the ball in.
The attention turned back to the bench but the first changes were from Sporting, including the withdrawal of Carvalho who, at a quoted £35m, looked wildly over-priced. Sporting persisted, as they had to, and Slimani brought a decent save from Cech with a far-post header. Word had presumably come through that Schalke were ahead and another sub, Andre Martins, was sent on. Still Chelsea fans waited for Loftus-Cheek - and for Diego Costa’s first Champions League goal, not that his failure to score should detract from a strong line-leading performance.
Enter… Loic Remy, replacing Salah who had looked reasonably bright, though not bright enough to claim a regular starting berth. Costa immediately set up the Frenchman but he seemed loath to make his first touch a left-foot shot, so came inside onto his right and was blocked off.
Ramires was next into the fray, on for Schurrle who had made a more convincing argument for a recall, not least by scoring.
Finally, with eight minutes remaining, Loftus-Cheek moved to the touchline, and saw his number, 36, up in lights on the fourth official’s board, and jogged onto the turf to a great ovation and a welcoming chant of ‘Ruben, Ruben’. There was a cheer when he touched the ball for the first time, then a small groan as he was dispossessed. His next touches, swift passes to Costa, Remy, then Ramires, were assured. He then robbed Adrien Silva and burst forward only to be clattered by Paulo Oliviera.
It was an old pro’s ‘welcome to the big-time son’ tackle, and it earned Oliveira a booking. Loftus-Cheek gingerly got up, to more cheers. The expectations on this young man are frightening and it is hoped can soon share them with Lewis Baker and Dominic Solanke. But living with expectation is part of the script at Chelsea. So far this season the club are coping with it rather well.
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