Chelsea clashed with Valencia in a meaningless Champions League match on Tuesday. The Blues, deprived of Didier Drogba who was out after a knee operation, had already qualified for the next round (courtesy of a 4-0 win against Rosenborg). Valencia, on the other hand, went through the motions and was a pale shadow of their past brilliance.
Ronald Koeman needs to inject a new vitality into Valencia as his team has not scored in their last five matches. He has plenty of time though, now that their attention has turned solely to domestic issues after missing out on a Champions League and UEFA Cup place. Yes, even that was snatched away with Schalke 04’s 3-1 win over Rosenborg and Valencia end up finishing bottom of the group. Some of the fans will be missing the guidance of Benitez; if he loses his job at Liverpool, I believe the door is open here.
A near-capacity home crowd filled Stamford Bridge, happy to support their team or at least to assess their chances ahead of Sunday’s London collision with Premiership leader Arsenal. Chelsea could be forgiven for taking things easy, but to their credit, that was not the case. They enjoyed their football and for all their enthusiasm, it was unfortunate they do not have goals to show for it. “We deserved 5-0,” Grant said.
Arsene Wenger will be taking notes closely in this match, the scoreline may not be remarkable but as a showcase of returning key players, it has served its purpose. Petr Cech was back, his first appearance since he damaged a calf muscle against Schalke last month. In addition, defender Paulo Ferreira, after missing seven games with an ankle problem, also joined in the fray. Add Michael Essien, in the middle of a league suspension, into the team and Chelsea have their credentials as a championship team intact.
In fact, Grant continues to set his sights on reaching next May’s final in Moscow. He said: “It is a good feeling to finish top of the group. We can at least be in the final. This is our target for the next few years but we want to do it this year.”
Drogba’s absence offers Andrei Shevchenko a chance to prove his worth as he becomes the focal point of Chelsea’s attack. A former menace who strikes fear into the tightest defense in Italy and having one of the best goalscoring records in European competition (60 goals in all Uefa competitions, just three behind record-holder Filippo Inzaghi), it is unfathomable how he has become such a liability in Chelsea’s game plan. Back in AC Milan, a half-fit Shevchenko was still considered a god-send and able to kill off a match in a moment of brilliance.
For the next two months, Shevchenko has to lead Chelsea’s attack as Drogba recovers from knee surgery and then heads off for the African Nations Cup. It is a prospect Grant does not relish since Shevchenko, after a season at Chelsea, had never lived up to his billing. In fact, under Grant, he still doesn’t command a regular place.
Nevertheless, Shevchenko showed glimpses of his lethal past when he was a whisker away from his 61st goal in the fourth minute but his shot was pushed away by Santiago Canizares. It set the right tone for Chelsea’s night though. From the corner, Valencia had a close shave again as captain John Terry placed a header just wide of the target.
Shaun Wright-Phillips then forced Canizares into a clumsy clearance as Chelsea continued to display how far they have come under Avram Grant. Chelsea were comfortable on the ball and throwing caution to the wind, Ferreira ventured forward in the 17th minute before crossing for Claudio Pizarro who was inches away from deflecting the ball into the net.
Lampard was replaced by Joe Cole as Chelsea looked to protect their assets further and within seconds they had the ball in the Valencia net, only for Kalou to be judged offside as he converted Pizarro’s through ball. Chelsea tried doggedly to end their group campaign with a victory. Before the end, they were denied twice by a post, first from Kalou and then Joe Cole.
Aside from all the near-misses, the memorable aspect of this match is Chelsea’s unbeaten home run reaching the half-century mark with this goalless draw with Valencia. The fans will cherish this record for years to come and there is every chance of stretching it further.
For Sunday’s cruncher, Frank Lampard (the creative lynchpin) will be a potent threat and the most likely source of goals for Chelsea. Avram Grant, putting up a brave front, has demonstrated his faith in Andriy Shevchenko (no choice, since Salomon Kalou and Claudio Pizarro did not fare any better) and believes he is ready to shoot down the Gunners. It may be better if Shevchenko had stayed on and scored a confidence-boosting goal, but Grant insisted it was right to rest him.
“It was a decision taken before the game. We knew we had three games in eight days,” he said. “We decided Shevchenko would not play 90 minutes because this game was not important for qualification. Maybe he could have scored if he had played in the second half but it is more important to keep his physical condition.”
A win against the Gunners at the weekend would bring Chelsea level on points with the Premier League leaders but, although Arsenal are stuttering, it is hard to see the Blues winning the match without Drogba. Grant may have to rely on Chelsea’s rock-solid defence to emerge unscathed from the Emirates Stadium.
The Blues’ rearguard have conceded just one goal in their last eight matches (despite an attacking play) and will be further strengthened by the return of goalkeeper Petr Cech and right-back Paulo Ferreira.
Grant had come into his own and he can trumpet his 16-game unbeaten run. That is a respectable feat. Do not be surprised if he comes in as strong contender for Manager of the Year award and breaks tradition for doing so without the proper coaching credentials.