Chelsea secured their place in the last 16 of the Champions League despite slumping to a shock defeat in Switzerland, but Europe’s elite will have little to worry about in the new year’s knockout phase after this woeful display.
Mohammed Salah netted the winner Basel deserved three minutes from time to send the home fans into delirium and leave Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho questioning whether his players have the strength to cope with the winter period after all.
They have progressed with a game to spare in fortunate fashion because Schalke only drew against Steaua Bucharest and still trail Chelsea by a point, while Basel remain two behind.
Chelsea’s closest rivals play each other in the final group game so Mourinho’s side can’t be caught by both, although they will need to win at home against Steaua to guarantee top spot.
John Obi Mikel boasted confidently 24 hours earlier that the “real Chelsea are back,” but they actually look to have taken another step backwards in what is proving to be a season of inconsistency.
They have suffered the ignominy of losing to Basel home and away now, although the result was not surprising because they struggled from the outset.
Given Mourinho’s comments on the eve of the match, much attention was paid to the 11 players he believed strong enough to survive the challenge Basel posed.
Ashley Cole and Juan Mata were left on the bench for the fourth game in a row, but Willian was given a chance to impress instead of Eden Hazard, who was among the substitutes.
The build-up had also seen a lot of discussion about how Mourinho had given his head a close shave, but in the opening stages it was his team’s turn to have a few themselves.
In complete contrast to the fast, dynamic start they made at West Ham just three days ago, Chelsea were sluggish and allowed Basel to seize the initiative from the outset.
As the home side forced seven corners inside the first quarter, Mourinho’s men didn’t have look like a side trying to avenge the shock 2-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge in September or get the win needed to secure progression to the last 16 as group winners.
Mourinho used the same 4-3-3 formation as he did on Saturday, but Basel exploited the gaps on the flanks time and time again and could have had the three points wrapped by half-time but for keeper Petr Cech.
He made his first save inside three minutes when Marco Streller escaped his markers at the near post – in a similar fashion to the way he scored the winner two months ago in London – to flick on Taulant Xhaka’s free-kick.
He also had to be alert to palm Fabian Frei’s effort to safety before midfielder John Obi Mikel cleared off the line from Ivan Ivanov.
However, their luckiest escape came when referee Stephane Lannoy declined to give a penalty even though Frank Lampard clearly handled Xhaka’s cross.
The conditions were a lot colder than when these two sides last played at St Jakob-Park in April and Chelsea won 2-1 in their Europa League semi-final first leg.
Mourinho’s icy breath was clearly visible as he stood on the touchline, yet there was no doubt he was getting hot under the collar as his players carelessly gave the ball away time and time again.
One rare attack saw Samuel Eto’o just fail to get on the end of a great cross from Branislav Ivanovic, but that was virtually the only threat they posed in the first half.
In contrast, Mohamed Saleh, who was terrorising Chelsea on the right flank yet again, brought another fine save out of Cech. To make matters worse, Eto’o was carried off on a stretcher just before the break after falling awkwardly under Serey Die’s fair challenge. Fernando Torres, who has been out for three weeks with a knee problem of his own, came on to replace him.
Mourinho walked down the tunnel prematurely to clearly give his players the harsh half-time words they deserved – but they didn’t have the desired effect.
Oscar was the next to feel the manager’s wrath as Chelsea’s anaemic display continued and he was replaced 11 minutes after the restart by Hazard.
The hour mark came and went with Chelsea still to have a shot on goal.
Technically their barren streak finally came to an end in the 64th minute when Ivanovic’s flick from a Lampard free-kick was blocked six yards out, but it hardly caused a stir among their frozen travelling support.
Cech was the only Chelsea player to come out of the match with real credit. But the team needs more than that if they are to progress through the knockout stages. They still have an awful lot of improving to do.
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