Match Report: Little love for Rafa Benitez despite Oscar's gift for Chelsea against Sparta Prague
Sparta Prague 0 Chelsea 1
Chelsea began life in the Europa League with an unconvincing victory in Prague which did little to suggest that Rafael Benitez’s love affair with the club has much time left to run.
It took a sublime goal from Oscar to hand Chelsea an undeserved victory with eight minutes remaining and provide the only moment of quality in a dire game.
For the 1,200 Chelsea fans who made the trip, declarations of affection were in short supply on Valentine's Day. Instead, until Oscar lifted their spirits, they again aimed abusive chants in his direction.
Understandably, the former Liverpool coach was in a more positive mood and his team should book their place in the last 16 when the second leg takes place next Thursday.
Benitez said: "We have confidence, with a lot of respect for Sparta. At least we have scored the away goal."
The Spaniard also revealed the continuing problems with John Terry's recovery from a knee problem. "He had a set-back," Benitez said of his captain, who travelled but did not play. "After he was fine again. He had no reaction in the next training session.
"It's a vicious circle: if he cannot play, he cannot improve his match fitness. We have to manage. In the meantime if Cahill and Ivanovic are doing well at least we can keep winning games."
This game just showed how far Chelsea have fallen since they lifted the Champions League last May. They are now struggling to defeat second-rate opposition.
Even though Sparta Prague last played a competitive game on 6 December, any gap in quality between the sides was not evident.
One of the main reasons was striker Fernando Torres, who extended his woeful goal return to just one in his last 13 games.
In the 35th minute Juan Mata rolled the ball into his path with just the keeper Tomas Vaclik to beat and he scuffed his shot straight at him. He repeated the trick four minutes later, this time Frank Lampard the provider.
It always felt like a bit of an understatement when Benitez admitted before the game that having only one striker, Torres, available for the tournament was a "problem".
Near the end Torres sliced a shot so badly it went out for a throw-in and once again Benitez had the difficult job of defending him. He said: "Everybody expects a striker just to score goals, but he's also doing a great job for the team. His work-rate today was really good and thanks to him and the rest of the team, the second line could create." His rhetoric was unconvincing, just as Torres and the rest of his team-mates were.
At least they have Oscar. He showed the guile his team-mates had been lacking seconds after replacing Juan Mata by dancing through the Sparta defenders and rolling the ball into the bottom corner. Sparta never played with enough belief to cause an upset.
This display exposed how far the Champions League holders have fallen and that even the much-derided Europa League looks a step too high for them.
Man of the match Oscar.
Match rating 5/10.
Referee D Orsato (It).
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