Match Report: Rafa Benitez leaps to defence of Fernando Torres after Eden Hazard saves Chelsea's skin

Chelsea 1 Sparta Prague 1 (Chelsea win 2-1 on aggregate)

Stamford Bridge

In the competition they never wanted to be part of, jeering the manager they never wanted at the club and despairing at the £50m centre-forward who almost never scores, so Chelsea progressed thanks to Eden Hazard’s 92nd minute goal.

The question is: do they even want to be in the last 16 of the Europa League, with a tie against Steaua Bucharest who beat Ajax on penalties last night? At times you saw the very worst of Chelsea's season, with Rafa Benitez barracked by his own fans and, above all, Fernando Torres woeful in front of goal.

It should have been a night that was dominated by Hazard whose first season as a £32m player at Chelsea has not quite worked out as he would have wished, but inevitably you could not help but wonder at Torres' latest collections of misses, stumbles and general hangdog disposition.

Since 23 December, Torres has scored just once – against Brentford in the FA Cup, and last night in a competition that Chelsea once considered well beneath them, he looked far from the dominant striker you might expect slumming it in less celebrated company.

Once again, Benitez was forced to defend his player and once again he did so with the kind of certainty that is baffling to those who have watched Torres' struggles. "If he continues working like [last night] and playing like he did [last night], he will score goals," Benitez said. "I'm convinced about that."

Earlier he had trotted out the familiar excuses. "We could be talking about Fernando not scoring goals, and he had four chances. But he had four chances. Let's turn it into a positive. I've seen him in games not having these chances because he's not in the right position. The goalkeeper stopped him and he missed some, but he did a good job for the team, was in the right position.

"It wasn't the situation where the striker disappeared. He was in the right place at the right time. Are we disappointed he didn't score? Yes, we are. But he was still giving his all to the team."

If that really is Torres' best then heaven help him. He does not miss chances by much but the fact is that he misses them and the longer that goes on, the more pressing the need for Chelsea to sign his replacement this summer. With no Demba Ba on the bench last night, Benitez had no option but to leave Torres on.

There were boos for the Chelsea interim manager when he brought off Oscar on 67 minutes for Hazard. Not at the introduction of Hazard but for the inevitable substitution of Oscar, who had played well, rather than the less effective Victor Moses or even Torres. That spilled over into a familiar chorus of "You don't know what you're doing" and some of the old tension returned.

Benitez was rewarded with a goal from Hazard, his 10th of a season that has had its ups and downs. "It was not easy to pick anyone to come off," he said. "We decided on Oscar because Victor could give us width on the right and Hazard on the left. They were playing deep, so we wanted to stretch them. Hazard has quality and could make the difference in the end."

Before Hazard's goal the game was going to extra-time which would have been very unhelpful given Sunday's game against Manchester City. Chelsea looked for inspiration from Oscar and Juan Mata and they were attacking relentlessly by the end against a robust Sparta who, 1-0 up, still looked dangerous on the counter-attack.

A goal on 17 minutes from the Sparta striker David Lafata had lifted his side and given them that glimmer of hope. Chelsea spent the rest of the game chasing that deficit.

Torres' first chance came on just four minutes when Moses cut the ball back to him and the Chelsea striker hit his shot close enough to goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik for him to save. He had an even better chance on 11 minutes when Mata's cross from the right just needed gently guiding into the Sparta goal from close range but Torres just could not manage it.

In those opening stages Chelsea had full control of the game and despite a healthy crowd there was not the high levels of anti-Benitez tension. Then the Sparta goal came and the mood changed to one of quiet despair.

It was well-worked by Sparta who got a ball inside the right-back Cesar Azpilicueta which Vaclav Kadlec retrieved and cut back to Lafata to score. After that the away side rallied and Petr Cech was obliged to save from Tomas Prikryl. In a midfield without Frank Lampard, a lot of the creative burden fell upon Oscar. Down the left, with Ashley Cole on the bench, Chelsea looked exposed,

Nevertheless, they should have scored from Mata's volley into the ground which Vaclik did well to save. Then, in the final moments of the first half a cross from John Obi Mikel reached Torres in the box and, although the header was not simple, it was a chance. It went over.

It got little better for Torres after half-time. He seemed to take away the ball from Ramires in one misunderstanding and later got in the way of a good shot from the same team-mate. There was one excellent feint and burst of acceleration from Torres away from the Sparta defence but bearing down on goal he tried to chip Vaclik, with predictable results.

The late intervention from Hazard came so late that Sparta only had time to kick-off before the Macedonian referee blew for full-time. Benitez survives, but for his gloomy centre-forward, nothing seems to get better.

Man of the match Oscar.

Match rating 7/10.

Referee A Stavrev (Mac).

Attendance 38,642.

Round of 16 draw details

Viktoria Plzen v Fenerbahce

Benfica v Bordeaux

Anzhi Makhachkala v Newcastle Utd

Stuttgart v Lazio

Tottenham v Internazionale

Levante v Rubin Kazan

Basle v Zenit St Petersburg

Steaua Bucharest v Chelsea

Ties to take place 7 and 14 March

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
A poster by Durham Constabulary
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine