James Lawton: Resolute Chelsea overcome shock of the new against Shakhtar Donetsk
A few more games like this and football might just win back its good name
Chelsea proved some time ago that for all their sins, both real and perceived, they do not lack a spine — and still less a communal belief in their ability to beat the most formidable odds.
Last night there were times when they were condemned to the role of some of football's lesser species. They were blistered by another example of a new brand of football but when Victor Moses came on to head in a winner in the last seconds we were back into the terrain which is won only by examples of the fiercest competitive character.
Chelsea are alive once more in football's greatest club competition and for once it was a triumph of spirit which brought no angst, no complications.
It was one for the principle that professionals are obliged to shape a serious performance even in the most unpromising circumstances and it is, of course, a philosophy that Chelsea's manager Roberto Di Matteo is on the point of claiming almost for his own.
It was Chelsea's night in the end but the benefits surely spread themselves some way beyond the King's Road.
Certainly a few more games like this and something quite astounding could happen. Football might just win back its good name. It could remind us of what all the fuss – and just recently the fetid rancour – should really be about. Ideally, it is a game of balance and rhythm and superior skills.
These qualities came to us in a sweet and sustained rush in the first half — and left us with the expectation of a fight which it was easy to believe might just have some direct relevance to the destination of the Champions League title that recently has looked to be in the most precarious possession of Chelsea. Some Stamford Bridge denizens were no doubt stunned by the absence of the totemic warhorse – well, that's one way of describing John Terry – but soon enough they had another worry.
It was one which for a second successive night brought immense pressure on the belief that all the riches of the Premier League, as represented by its two wealthiest clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea, are sufficient insulation against a thrilling tide of brilliant young teams in Europe.
Chelsea, it is true, had moments when they exerted impressively their right to call themselves champions of Europe. The touch and vision of Juan Mata and Eden Hazard had already been notable before that other member of this talented trinity, Oscar, pushed Chelsea back into the lead with a piece of sumptuous authority after Shakhtar's eccentric goalkeeper Andrei Pyatov had left his line unprotected.
But then in so many ways it was a journey back to the Etihad Stadium 24 hours earlier, when such expensive City performers as Yaya Touré and Sergio Arguero were required to keep their team alive against the lovely spontaneity of young Ajax. Last night it was the team from the hard old coal and steel town of Donetsk who at times superbly represented Europe's new wave. With Ajax and Borussia Dortmund, Shakhtar have elected themselves to a school of football which is giving more than a glimpse of the possibility of a time when the power commanded by sheer resources is to some degree at least countered by the force of intelligence and well educated craft.
Certainly Shakhtar's coach Mircea Lucescu had reason to be proud of some his team's best work – most notably the second of the Brazilian Willian's two goals. It neutralised Oscar's sublime strike and was the confirming evidence that this was a team of both considerable resolve and fine technique.
Another Brazilian, Fernandinho, dissected Chelsea's defence quite exquisitely early in the second half and when the ball was crossed by full-back Darijo Srna, Willian was again irresistible.
It was a statement that imperilled Chelsea's hold on the great title, casting doubt as it did so eloquently on their ability to rise above the fear that they are entombed in permanent controversy. Yet if this was some of the finest football seen on these shores for some time, Chelsea's response was impressive. The game may have cast new doubt on their ability to survive a group which also includes the impressive Juventus, but there was certainly no question about the resolve of Di Matteo's men.
The skill and bite of Willian had been particularly intimidating but if Chelsea had been invited to panic, if the flow of the Shakhtar game had threatened some serious unhinging, there was no question about the resolve of the champions. It was just as well because this was indeed no ordinary challenge. As the game went into added time, it was Shakhtar who were bearing down on the Chelsea goal.
Yet there was still sufficient defiance and will – and when Moses appeared just in time to head in the winner, we were reminded again of some of the most remarkable endurance ever displayed in the history of English football. Di Matteo breathed in deeply amid all the celebrations. He is the man who continues to make survival a way of professional life.
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