Carlo Ancelotti's position at Chelsea will not be strengthened by performances such as this, a stuttering victory over the whipping boys of Group F. The manager has been undermined by the recent machinations behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge, with the sacking of his assistant Ray Wilkins and the promotion of chief scout Michael Emenalo to replace him.
However if Ancelotti wishes to wield more power within this most political of football clubs, he will need his team to play better and win more convincingly. They have lost three of their last four Premier League games, and visit Newcastle United on Sunday in dire need of turning results around.
This unimpressive victory over MSK Zilina proved little, except that Chelsea's squad desperately needs strengthening in January. Ancelotti has been made to work this season with the smallest squad in the Premier League, after owner Roman Abramovich decreed costs must be reduced and senior players were shown the door.
The Italian used the game to give greater experience to some of his younger, fringe players, but the exercise only served to highlight the limitations of those at his disposal, particularly during this testing period when John Terry and Frank Lampard are sidelined with long-term injuries.
Ancelotti handed a first start to the precocious 17-year-old Josh McEachran, tipped by many to be the finest product of the club's academy since John Terry broke through a decade ago. McEachran responded with a composed performance of maturity and assurance as the holding player, prompting Ancelotti to claim he is ready to graduate up to regular starts in the team. However it is too much to expect McEachran, who still needs to grow physically, to reinvigorate Chelsea.
Ancelotti said: "I think he can play every game. He was good defensively, won a lot of tackles. And, obviously, with the ball he's fantastic. He can play it short or long without problem. He played with personality and I'm happy with his performance. He has to grow, he has to improve, but he's ready to play."
Left-back Patrick van Aanholt also showed plenty of potential, striking the post with a thunderous left foot shot in the second half and generally giving a very decent impression of Ashley Cole. However Jeffrey Bruma, Gaël Kakuta and Daniel Sturridge did not manage to impose themselves.
Kakuta in fact was substituted at half-time by Ancelotti after the manager had spent much of the first 45 minutes bemoaning the French teenager's contribution. His contract is up in the summer, and the signs are that Chelsea are not too concerned at the moment about whether he leaves or not.
Chelsea started the game with seven changes on the pitch from the side that had lost 1-0 to Birmingham City last Saturday – and one important one off it. The much-maligned Emenalo had sat next to Ancelotti last weekend, but last night he was forced to shuffle one seat along and let Paul Clement, who works daily with Ancelotti on the training ground, occupy the favoured blue plastic chair next to the manager.
The trio watched helplessly as Chelsea produced one of the most inept 45 minutes of recent memory, or at least since their last home game, when they were tonked 3-0 by Sunderland.
Chelsea fell behind after 19 minutes, when a simple passing move by the Slovak visitors sliced through the heart of Chelsea's compliant defence. Babatounde Bello played a one-two with Zilina's captain Robert Jez before poking the ball first time past Chelsea's helpless goalkeeper Russ Turnbull. Instead of responding swiftly, Chelsea continued to flounder, and were fortunate not to go further behind when Tomas Majtan was allowed to cut in from the right. His shot however was comfortably saved by Turnbull at his near post.
Chelsea were booed off at half-time and, judging by the look on his face as he left for dressing room, Ancelotti tore into his team at the interval. The result was a far better second half, in which Chelsea hit the frame of the goal twice, and managed to squeeze out two goals from the 21 efforts on goal they created in the second 45.
Sturridge levelled from substitute Salomon Kalou's cross in the 51st minute but still Chelsea struggled. Didier Drogba's free-kick was palmed on to the post by Zilina keeper Martin Dubravka, and Van Aanholt's drive also hit the upright.
Florent Malouda finally gave Chelsea the win they craved with a close range finish from Drogba's header with four minutes remaining. It was scrappy, but gratefully received by Ancelotti. His team have a perfect five wins out of five in the Champions League, and are guaranteed to top Group F, but this was the least convincing of them all.
Ancelotti's record last season, his outstanding reputation as a coach, and his open, charming personality, are all reasons why Abramovich should stand by his coach through this tricky period. However the Russian is the most capricious of employers, as the likes of Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Ray Wilkins have found to their cost. Victory, and an improved performance, at Newcastle is a priority.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Turnbull; Ferreira, Ivanovic, Bruma, Van Aanholt; Ramires, McEachran (Mellis 90), Malouda; Kakuta (Kalou h-t), Drogba, Sturridge (Anelka 74). Substitutes not used Hilario (gk), Mikel, Clifford, Sala.
MSK Zilina (4-5-1): Dubravka; Angelovic, Piacek, Pecalka, Gergel; Majtan (Poliacek 85), Bello, Guldan, Jez, Vladavic (Rilke 90); Oravec (Ceesay 64). Substitutes not used Krnac (gk), Leitner, Sourek, Zosak.
Referee R Schorgenhofer (Austria).
Man of the match Van Aanholt.
Match rating 6/10.
Results so far Marseilles 0-1 Spartak, Zilina 1-4 Chelsea; Spartak 3-0 Zilina, Chelsea 2-0 Marseilles; Spartak 0-2 Chelsea, Marseilles 1-0 Zilina; Chelsea 4-1 Spartak, Zilina 0-7 Marseilles; Chelsea 2-1 Zilina, Moscow 0-3 Marseilles.
Remaining fixtures 8 Dec Marseilles v Chelsea, Zilina v Spartak Moscow
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