One minute they had dreams of being world No 1, the next they were facing up to the reality of the Capital One Cup – and a cup-tie with Leeds that may not be entirely dissimilar to this gruelling final against Corinthians.
From Yokohama to Yorkshire – how fickle football can be. Interim Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez was hailed for his bold selection against Monterrey on Thursday, when his fluid, re-shaped young side ran riot against the Mexicans, but here he was fielding questions about disgruntled players and a season in danger of falling apart. Again.
It was put to him that Oscar, who began the evening on the bench, had been quoted on a Brazilian website saying his manager was “crazy” for leaving him out against his compatriots. A downcast Benitez shrugged and said: “Normally, with Twitter, Facebook, websites and bloggers, I don’t trust too many people. Any player not playing has to be disappointed, but that’s it.”
However, the game wasn’t won and lost on Oscar’s omission – far from it – just as it wasn’t thrown away by Gary Cahill’s moment of madness, when he kicked out at Emerson in the last few minutes and was deservedly shown a red card.
The trophy was wrested from Europe’s grip for the first time since 2006 because Chelsea were outmuscled in a match which, in years gone by, would have been right up their street. The Brazilians were more like the Premier League team. Bayed on by the majority in a near-capacity crowd, they were compact, organised and up for the fight against a side badly missing the leadership of the injured John Terry.
How Chelsea could also have done with the swagger and physical prowess of the departed Didier Drogba. They missed a hatful of chances, with Fernando Torres particularly wasteful. The Spaniard may have filled his boots with five goals against Danish minnows Nordsjaelland, Sunderland and Monterrey, but Benitez agreed that he needs to start scoring one the big occasions.
“He was there and he had the chances,” said Benitez. “He scored a goal that was disallowed. I agree that he has to take these chances in a final because it’s not easy to create too many. If you have two or three you have to score.”
Torres did have one rightly ruled out for offside in the final few minutes but should have equalised moments earlier when faced with a one-on-one with goalkeeper Cassio, who made a comfortable save.
For all Chelsea’s disappointment, though, at last the tournament had a game worthy of the name. Benitez knew the five-time Brazilian champions, who last won this title in 2000, would offer a stern challenge and brought Frank Lampard in, as captain, pushed David Luiz back into defence, preferred Victor Moses to Oscar and gave Ramires a starting berth.
Chelsea were indebted to the alert Luiz for twice halting the probing Emerson in Corinthians counter-attacks. On the one occasion Emerson did get through, he blazed hopelessly over Petr Cech’s bar.
Chelsea were sluggish, unable to get their passing game going, but did end up carving out the better chances and Cassio saved at full stretch from Moses after an intricate Chelsea move involving Juan Mata and Eden Hazard. The goalkeeper also did well to gather a fierce Mata volley. Torres showed a nice first touch from Branislav Ivanovic’s raking pass but played the ball straight at Cassio. Moses also squandered an opening.
There were some encouraging signs after the break, too, notably when Mata slipped an exquisite ball through to Hazard but the Belgian could not get his shot away.
Rather than a Blues revival, however, slowly Corinthians started tightening the screw. Emerson never stopped running, Paulinho grew in stature and in the Peruvian striker Paolo Guerrero they had a No 9 who would grace the Premier League. Guerrero’s goal, his second of the tournament, came after 69 minutes when Cahill had blocked Danilo’s shot and the ball looped up for a simple poacher’s header.
“We knew it would be a tough game against a good team and, in the end, it has gone like this,” said Benitez. “They had one chance and scored, and we didn’t take our chances. That was the difference. They were very physical from the first minute, every challenge and second ball. It was harder once they scored, they were keeping the ball and passing it. It wasn’t that we were going down physically, but they were keeping the ball much better. But we had four very clear chances, and the goalkeeper was man of the match, and to me that means a lot.”
Lampard was no less disappointed.“It was certainly a meaningful competition,” he said. “It’s been meaningful from the minute we got here. There was a great crowd for the final. The Chelsea fans have followed us well as a team. And as a club we wanted to win it.”