The buzz at Chelsea at the moment is all about giving youth a chance to shine, but when push comes to shove, it is still the club's reliable old pros who step up and deliver. With John Terry rested and Frank Lampard still injured, it was a rejigged Chelsea team that took on the Russian visitors. However, after a goalless first-half display in which Chelsea struggled to find their rhythm, a wonderful goal from Nicolas Anelka and a penalty from Didier Drogba put the result beyond doubt and put Chelsea through to the knock-out stages with four wins out of four in Group F.
At the end of the game, Josh McEachran, Gaël Kakuta and Daniel Sturridge were all on the pitch, trying to impress manager Carlo Ancelotti. However, if Chelsea are finally to achieve their unfulfilled ambition of lifting the Champions League trophy this season, it is to Terry and Lampard, Drogba and Anelka that Ancelotti will be turning.
Victory over Spartak Moscow affords Chelsea's experienced Italian manager the chance to rotate more of his players in the last two group games. But when the business end of the Champions League kicks off in the middle of February, he will need his best, most experienced players to be fit and flying if Chelsea are finally to win Europe's premier prize.
Victory over Blackburn at the weekend earned Ancelotti his 50th win as Chelsea manager in his 71st game since accepting Roman Abramovich's offer to give his team "personality". It took Ancelotti four more games to reach the landmark than Jose Mourinho managed in 2004-05. In the past, that kind of statistic might have been used as evidence the Italian was not quite up to the standards set by the Special One, but winning the Double last season of Premier League and FA Cup has put paid to those comparisons.
Ancelotti has barely put a foot wrong in his 17 months in charge at the Bridge, the one glitch being Chelsea's elimination to Internazionale in the first stage of the Champions League knock-out stages in March, when Chelsea lost both legs of the tie and were made to look powerless. In their attempt to make good this year, Chelsea are intent on making as few mistakes as possible in the competition, to control "the details", as Ancelotti described his intention in the build-up to this match.
Yet it was with an eye on Chelsea's trip to Anfield on Sunday that Ancelotti decided to rest both Terry and Michael Essien, who has a slight toe injury, from the starting team to face the Russians. In the absence of Terry, and also Lampard, who sources say will not be fit to face Liverpool, the armband was passed to Drogba, making his first Champions League appearance of the season following a two-game suspension and then illness.
Drogba, such a key performer for Chelsea, has been a little off colour in recent weeks after a flying start to the season. At times in recent games he has seemed too concerned with creating chances for others, drifting wide or dropping too deep. It was noticeable in the opening exchanges last night that he stuck more rigidly to his role as the team's main goal threat.
He pounced quickly on a short pass from Ramires but his shot was saved by Spartak goalkeeper Andriy Dykan at his near post. Drogba then found himself clean through, put in by a long ball from John Obi Mikel, but after brushing off the challenges of two Spartak defenders, he scuffed his shot at Dykan.
Soon after, another chance fell to Drogba, but the Ivory Coast international headed over the crossbar from Yuri Zhirkov's corner. Chelsea continued to push Spartak on the defensive and Alex missed from a matter of yards from another corner, the ball skewing off his shin and high into the crowd.
Anelka also curled an early shot not too wide of the far post, as Chelsea dominated. Yet Spartak showed they were not coming to London merely to allow their hosts to roll them over and Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal had to get down sharply to save an attempt from 25 yards from Spartak's Brazilian captain Alex.
Chelsea took the lead four minutes into the second half, when Anelka produced a moment of genius. Starting on the right, the French forward passed inside to Salomon Kalou and continued his run to receive the ball from the Ivory Coast international. Anelka's momentum had seemingly taken him too close to the byline but as Dykan rushed out recklessly from his goal the Chelsea man produced a finish of the highest quality.
Ramires, who is gradually starting to find his feet following his £17m move from Benfica in the summer, unleashed a perfect 50-yard ball to the toe of Drogba, who was brought down by Evgeni Makeev. With Lampard sidelined, responsibilities for the penalty fell to Drogba, who found the bottom corner of the net for his first Champions League goal of the season. In all, Drogba's record in Europe bears comparison with the very best of the recent past, with 32 goals in 61 Champions League appearances.
Chelsea ensured their passage to the knock-out stages with a third goal in the 66th minute. Drogba floated over a free-kick from the right side and Branislav Ivanovic was left unchallenged to score with a powerful header.
Spartak pulled a goal back with four minutes left, although substitute Nikita Bazhenov looked suspiciously offside as he took the ball from Welliton's cross and fired past Cech. Ivanovic added a fourth for the home side in stoppage time, from a goalmouth scramble, to give Chelsea a comfortable passage to the knock-out stages.
Afterwards, Ancelotti singled out Anelka for praise. "Anelka was the key to opening the game," he said. "He scored a fantastic goal. He has experience. He maintains very good skill, ability, speed. Overall he is in the best moment of his career."
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Ferreira, Ivanovic, Alex, Cole; Ramires, Mikel (McEachran, 68), Zhirkov; Kalou, Drogba (Sturridge, 76), Anelka (Kakuta, 76). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Van Aanholt, Terry, Bruma.
Spartak Moscow (4-2-3-1): Dykan; Makeev, Pareja, Suchy, Ivanov; Ibson, Sheshukov (Drincic, 67); D Kombarov, Alex (Kozlov, 68), McGeady (Bazhenov, 79); Welliton. Substitutes not used: Belenov (gk), Sabitov, Khodyrev, Ananidze.
Booked: Chelsea Mikel Spartak Moscow D Kombarov, Ivanov.
Possession Chelsea 57%, Spartak Moscow 43%.
Shots on target Chelsea 6, Spartak Moscow 5.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).Attendance 40,477.
Man of the match Anelka. Match rating 7/10.