The livid chants for José Mourinho to return to these parts went up just after the hour-mark of a contest that long since degenerated into a slog.Chelsea remain afloat in the Europa League, though everything about their progress into the last 16 felt unconvincing, and the crowd would not be hoodwinked that all is rosy. It took Eden Hazard’s goal in stoppage time at the end to deflate Sparta Prague here. The reigning European champions should not be suffering occasions like this.
Rafael Benítez might accept that much. His team were denied for so long here by the excellence of Tomas Vaclik in the visitors’ goal, but that did not excuse either the profligacy of the hosts’ forward line or the fragility at the back that allowed Sparta to lead for so long. They may have forced a way through into a tie against either Ajax or Steaua Bucharest on Thursday night, but Chelsea were unconvincing. Manchester City await at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Benítez’s team, gasping under the weight of their fixture list and unnerved by their own deficiencies, are a team who continue to labour.
This had optimistically been billed as a formality, a game to be claimed at a stroll against opponents who, while sitting third in the Czech league, have not played a domestic fixture since early December and had already succumbed in the home leg. Yet the past seven months had offered a prolonged alert that the only thing inevitable these days is Chelsea’s inconsistency. The season has proved such a numbing anti-climax from that giddy night in Munich last May that the anxiety that gripped the hosts far too often should perhaps have been expected. Sparta, who had travelled in hope rather than expectation, led at the interval to put the tie level on aggregate, and the familiar boos and jeers echoed around the arena.
It was hard to equate this display with those that had forced Chelsea’s passage to the Allianz Arena. Certainly, it bore little resemblance to the scorching of Napoli in the last 16, or the bloody-minded resilience and sheer refusal to wilt against Barcelona in the semi-final a little under a year ago. Those memories will never fade, but they already feel like episodes from a bygone era. Instead, fragility was exposed as the nerves set in. The sight of Gary Cahill nodding against John Terry and, inadvertently, almost sending Václav Kadlec through on goal from Tomás Vaclik’s routine goal-kick rather summed it up. As, unfortunately, did the profligacy of Fernando Torres at the other end. The Spaniard’s free header over the bar in stoppage time at the end of the first half was wasteful but felt familiar.
Torres had actually side-footed just wide, and then looped a volley on to the roof of the net, in Chelsea’s spritely opening to suggest better but, when the early goal did not come, concentration lapsed. Lukas Vacha’s quick free-kick inside Ramires was duly collected by Kadlec on the run, Cahill tottering over as his own momentum carried him forward and the diminutive forward checked and wriggled back into play in possession. His pull-back was perfect for David Lafata, bursting into the box, to place high into the net with the entire backline pulled horribly out of position.
They might have added to their advantage, so jittery were their hosts, with the former Reading midfielder Marek Matejovsky waltzing through the centre to send Tomas Prikryl into the box, only for Petr Cech to save at his near post. Teams of greater quality might have capitalised on the flurry of corners that followed as the locals’ frustration mounted. The mood hardly improved when Vaclik conjured a brilliantly instinctive save to deny Juan Mata, so often Chelsea’s salvation, after he had controlled, spun and volleyed towards the far post.
That was a wonderful save from an audacious and cleverly crafted attempt, but it did at least offer Chelsea hope that there was Czech vulnerability at the heart of their defence to exploit. Oscar’s slalom away from a quartet of markers in the early exchanges after the interval hinted at renewed urgency, the Brazilian’s slipped pass for his compatriot, Ramires, culminating in a battered attempt against Vaclik’s near-post. The goalkeeper was helpless then but excellent soon after to suffocate Torres’s shot on the edge of the area, the striker having tricked Mario Holek to glean a sight of goal. When he was beaten, it was the substitute Hazard who provided the incision, belting in from the edge of the area. That felt cruel on Sparta.