James Lawton: The crown falls but seeds of hope bloom against flaky Danes for Chelsea
David Luiz and Fernando Torres gave precious gifts to a team bereft of confidence
Chelsea duly trailed out of Europe as champions discredited in record time but, for the moment at least, they have something from which to draw a little comfort.
After the most embarrassing weeks surely ever to be suffered by a club with pretensions to a place at the top of the game, they did put a tourniquet on their shame and their dishevelment.
It wasn’t a lot in all the circumstances because, after all, they were running over the weakest team the over-populated tournament has seen for some time but for a little while there was the prospect of fresh horrors.
When it was dismissed, you could almost hear the rush of recovered breath in the executive suite.
At their most perilous hour, where could Chelsea and their besieged manager Rafael Benitez look for a touch of certainty? You would have given long odds against David Luiz, brilliantly aggressive at times, no doubt, but too often a one-man charging enigma, and Fernando Torres, the lost soul of Stamford Bridge.
But then both did more than break through the improbable log jam created by the Danish champions who bill themselves as the Wild Tigers of the North but at this level have tended to look rather more like the products of a Copenhagen pastry shop. This cruel verdict would have to be amended somewhat just moments into the second half, at least in the case of the quick and composed Joshua John, but not before Luiz and Torres had donated the most precious gifts to a team so recently accused of lacking courage and confidence and almost anything else you care to mention by their new commander.
Having seen his team-mate Eden Hazard miss feebly from the spot, just moments after Petr Cech had foiled Nicolai Stokholm, Luiz finally converted a penalty. He did it with the swaggering urgency that marks his best play. It may just have triggered a flash in the Torres memory bank because when came back from a wilderness of scoring impotence a little later it was a goal that carried some of the assets of an earlier life: a quick eye, drive, and absolute confidence in a satisfactory outcome.
It wasn’t quite the eruption which once reduced the great Nemanja Vidic to ashes in his old Old Trafford citadel, but it was something indeed. Soon enough there was a more, a second smoothly converted after fine work by Hazard, which came hard on the Gary Cahill header which stifled any Nordsjaelland hope that they might build on the insecurities of the abdicating champions of Europe which flared briefly in the wake of John’s instant strike.
Benitez, reasonably enough, looked like a man who had just been read the governor’s pardon. He wiped his hands like a mechanic who had just sparked back into life a recalcitrant engine, which in a way he had, but this was almost precisely at the time a Juventus goal in Donetsk pushed Chelsea to the brink of the briefest reign in the history of the Champions League.
Benitez’s encouragement was that there had been some evidence of a fluency which had marked the opening of Chelsea’s season, when his fallen predecessor Roberto Di Matteo still enjoyed the nearest thing to a passable life span a Stamford Bridge coach is ever likely to enjoy.
With players of the quality of Juan Mata, who also scored as Chelsea claimed a 6-1 victory, substitute Oscar, another scorer, and Hazard, Benitez can hardly complain of workable material. Who knows he might also be able to claim the resurrection of Torres, a job which many believe was the prime reason for his appointment.
It is maybe a little soon to say that Torres has picked up his bed and is walking –that would be to overstate the resistance of a defence which early in the game was deprived of its second regular central defender – but the first priority was to produce a few vital signs of enduring life.
Scoring, they say, is more than anything a habit and now that he has been re-acquainted, Torres may indeed be contemplating the first days of the rest of his life.
Certainly he pursued the headline potential of a hat-trick with considerable effort and some hints of recovered confidence. It may not be a new chapter and it wasn’t an epic poem. But Chelsea are in no position to sniff at a word or two of hope.
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