Heading into a two-legged tie whilst leading on aggregate is a dangerous position, especially when the difference is one. The mind-set of the players is somewhere in between “sitting back and defending what we have” and “scoring a second to kill the game off”. And in the manner, in which Chelsea won the reverse fixture- with lesser possession, lesser chances created and lesser shots, the Portuguese side rightly fancied their chances in London. The game plan for Roberto Di Matteo was similar to the first leg- sit back and hit on the counter- let Benfica have the ball.
Since the referee blew the whistle for the first time, the visitors played the style of football for which they received heaps of praise, coupled with relentless pressure. This brought out some nervy moments for the Blues, with the players simply unable to keep the ball. One name who stood out was Pablo Aimar, who was pulling all the strings as Benfica faced the same demons which cost them the first tie- the inability to finish from promising positions. They got ever so close the levelling the tie, when John Terry had to put his body on the line to keep the game scoreless. Against the run of play, Chelsea launched a rare attack with a long ball from the defence, and were awarded a penalty.
Ashley Cole was brought down by Javi Garcia in the box, who was playing as a centre back due to unavailability of other defensive options. Although the penalty was a 50/50 at best, the referee decided to point to the spot. Up stepped Frank Lampard, as confident as ever. Despite the experienced Artur getting a hand on it after having guessed the direction of the shot correctly, it was hit with too much venom and was simply destined for the back of the net. With an aggregate lead of 2-0, Chelsea could look ahead and think of the FA Cup semi-final clash against Spurs at Wembley, never forgoing any opportunity at every trophy. However, they had to be aware of the threat posed by the away goal rule, meaning that Benfica would still go through in the event of the aggregate score being tied.
The situation went from bad to worse for the Portuguese giants as they were reduced to 10 men around the 40th minute, when Pereira received his second yellow of the night for an unruly challenge on John Obi Mikel. So they required two goals in the second half, with a man down, in order to advance to the semi-finals of the Champions League. One would think they might have given up at this stage- but no. They continued their unrelenting pressure and dominated the game despite playing the majority of the game with one man down. Petr Cech, who was a busy man, made a series of impressive saves to deny Benfica their much coveted goal. While Cardozo tormented the defence and our Czech goalkeeper on several occasions, he could hardly believe his eyes anymore when his fantastic shot was saved by our ever-so-reliable #1 shortly after the restart.
It was a head-in-hand moment for Chelsea at the other end, as Ramires missed an open goal after he was set up brilliantly by Salomon Kalou, who had scored the only goal of the game in the reverse fixture. At 2-0, it would have surely been game over for Benfica, but the miss meant their hope was not extinguished just yet with a good chunk of the game still yet to unfold. However, the game progressed in more-of-the-same fashion, with the hosts happy to let them have all the ball and hit on the counter. Chances fell on both end, with Mata unable to put the game out of reach once again, followed by deflected efforts by Torres and Kalou.
With Benfica’s chances of advancing getting bleaker by the passing second, their hope was renewed when Garcia headed the ball into the back of Cech’s net from a corner, after poor set piece marking by the Blues. With three hundred seconds remaining on the clock following this incident, it promised to be an anxious wait for the supporters. A single lapse in concentration at either end could be curtains for the perpetrator. In the dying minutes of the game, Benfica were awarded a free kick. A final hurrah for the side in Red to disrupt a celebration at Stamford Bridge. But, following a poor delivery into the box, Merieles collected the ball and continued his run. He remarkably ran all the way from Chelsea’s penalty box to the opposing one- and blasted the ball into the back of the net from 20 yards out. He proceeded to celebrate this thunderbolt in front of the travelling Benfica fans who had made his time on the pitch a hostile one throughout the night. With the aggregate score reading 3-1, and no time on the clock, Benfica’s appreciable efforts were in vain. The game ended 2-1, and the Portuguese side had only themselves to blame for their poor conversion rate.
However, what awaited the London outfit next was a huge challenge in itself. Barcelona, who were coached by Pep Guardiola, were the current champions of Europe and seemed to be unstoppable. Star studded names running throughout the team sheet, it would take a miracle for Chelsea to reach the final in Munich if this was the standard of their play. How did they fare against the Spanish side? Tune in next week to find out. Till then, remember to stay home and stay safe!