Chelsea brushed aside Spartak Moscow last night, two first-half goals ensuring the Londoners emerged victorious from their most daunting group fixture and perhaps exorcising some of the ghosts of the Luzhniki Stadium – the site of their defeat in the Champions League final two years ago.
The day before the match, Chelsea wheeled out Russian Yuri Zhirkov instead of their captain, John Terry, to sit alongside manager Carlo Ancelotti at their press conference. The message was that the club wanted to focus on Zhirkov's return to Moscow – he spent five years at Spartak's bitter rivals CSKA – and not Terry's return to the scene of his heartbreaking penalty miss.
And so it proved. The Russian scored his first Chelsea goal in spectacular fashion. Exactly halfway through the first half, a long ball hit from the back by John Obi Mikel could only be headed down by Nicolas Pareja in the Spartak defence. As the ball bounced, Zhirkov came charging in and, without breaking his run, hit a spectacular volley from just outside the area that flew past goalkeeper Andriy Dykan.
The goal came slightly against the run of play after Spartak enjoyed the better of the early exchanges. Dmitry Kombarov, inexplicably wearing the No 99 shirt, shot over the bar when he should have hit the target, and the tricky Brazilian forward Welliton drew a save from Petr Cech's outstretched boot after a smart swivel on the edge of the six-yard box.
But once Zhirkov had put the Blues in front, they never looked like giving up their lead, even if Cech remained the busier of the two keepers. Nicolas Anelka, who missed a penalty against Manchester United in the Moscow shoot-out two years ago, took a heavy touch when put through on goal, allowing Dykan to smother at his feet; on regaining the ball, he squared to a Spartak player when it would have been easier to pick out the oncoming Michael Essien or Florent Malouda.
Anelka atoned for the wastefulness two minutes before half-time, when he picked up the ball on the edge of the box after a powerful run through midfield from Essien. Again, it looked like he might have taken it too far, but he recovered his composure to turn the last defender and slot a low shot across Dykan into the corner of the goal.
It was an impressive 45 minutes, played as the mercury plummeted towards zero, on the Luzhniki's plastic pitch. A more creative set of fans might perhaps have come up with derogatory chants about Chelsea's Russian owner. But with the two ends of the stadium taking turns to belt out "Come on, Spartak" with the force and discipline of a Leni Riefenstahl film, the atmosphere was intimidating enough – until they were quietened by Zhirkov's volley.
The visitors also made light of the idea that Spartak would have an advantage as they were used to playing on their artificial pitch. Indeed, the only player who slipped in the first half was the Russians' front man, Welliton.
"They didn't have a problem," Ancelotti said of the playing surface after the game. "We didn't know the pitch and I think that after the game we can say that the pitch was very good to play football."
The Muscovites came out for the second half revived, and had three decent chances within the first five minutes, the best of which was a powerful shot from the edge of the area by Aiden McGeady, tipped over the bar by Cech. Later, Ibson produced another rocket from just outside the box, which was again parried bar by the Chelsea keeper; from the resultant corner, Ibson tried the same again, with the same result.
Irish international McGeady, signed from Celtic for £9.5m over the summer, was Spartak's best player, at the heart of every attack, but the Russians couldnot find a breakthrough, and by the 70-minute mark the game had largely fizzled out. Chelsea are now virtually assured of qualification, while Spartak know that if they beat Marseilles at home they should take second spot in the group, even if they lose at Stamford Bridge a fortnight from now.
"I don't think that the players thought about the last defeat here, they were focused on this game," Ancelotti said.
But nevertheless, it will be good for Chelsea to have avoided further pain at the ground where they failed at the last hurdle – on the home soil of own Roman Abramovich, no less – two years ago. Terry himself had a solid game at the heart of Chelsea's defence. With qualification for the knockout stages a virtual formality, Chelsea will be hoping they can finally win the prize Abramovich has craved since he started ploughing his millions into the club at a no less fitting venue – Wembley – next May.
Spartak Moscow 4-4-1-1: Dikan; Parshivlyuk, Pareja, Suchy, Makeeva; McGeady, Ibson, Sheshukov, Kombarov; Ari (Ananidze, 85); Welliton. Substitutes not used Pesyakov (gk), Maidana, Stranzl, Sabitov, Ivanov, Kozlov.
Chelsea 4-4-2: Cech; Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole (Van Aanholt, 87); Essien, Obi, Zhirkov, Kalou (McEachran, 74); Anelka, Malouda (Kakuta, 82). Substitutes not used: Turnbull (gk), Bruma, Clifford, Mellis.
Booked: Spartak Moscow Suchy; Chelsea Zhirkov
Referee C Carballo (Spain). Att 75,000
Man of the match Cech