If Chelsea flirt with danger
against Barcelona like they did at home to Benfica on Wednesday,
their poor conversion rate of one Champions League final from
five previous last-four appearances is likely to continue.
Chelsea, who looked second best for long periods, went
through to their sixth semi in the last nine seasons after
winning 2-1 in the second leg and 3-1 on aggregate but they were
close to losing the tie on away goals in the closing stages.
Instead the Londoners made it safe in stoppage time through
a thunderbolt from Portuguese Raul Meireles, heckled in the
first leg at Benfica last week for his previous Porto
Chelsea took the lead with a Frank Lampard penalty after 21
minutes and had the chance to take a firm grip on the game when
Benfica skipper Maxi Pereira was shown a second yellow card for
a rash challenge on John Obi Mikel five minutes before halftime.
But instead Chelsea allowed Benfica to take the initiative
for much of the second half and although the Premier League side
did have chances, it was the visitors who got the important
second goal when Javi Garcia headed home on 85 minutes.
That made the aggregate score 2-1 to Chelsea but another
goal for Benfica would have brought them level at 2-2 and they
would have qualified instead.
Substitute Nelson Oliveira and Pablo Aimar both went close
to getting the goal that would have eliminated Chelsea but in
the last significant action of the game, Chelsea broke.
Substitute Meireles ran unchallenged for almost 70 metres
before smashing the ball past Artur to seal Chelsea's place in
the last four as they seek a first ever European Cup title.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus told reporters: "We've been the
best team in Lisbon and London and even though we played most of
the match with 10 men tonight, we made Chelsea look ordinary.
"We pushed them back into the final third and after coming
back to 1-1 we nearly scored with a couple of really good
chances, but in the end suffered on the last counter-attack and
were finally beaten.
"But we go out as the better team with our heads held high.
Of course it is frustrating to lose but we weren't helped by
some poor referring decisions either."
Benfica had 22 goal attempts with eight of them on target
compared to Chelsea's 15 with four on target and if they had
grabbed a second in the dying minutes, the hosts would only have
had themselves to blame for not wrapping up the victory earlier.
Chelsea's interim coach Roberto Di Matteo - whose odds of
earning the permanent job get shorter every day - knew his side
were slightly fortunate but also knows Champions League glory is
all that really matters to owner Roman Abramovich.
"We expected a hard game and we made it a little more
difficult for ourselves by not scoring the second goal from all
our chances in the second half," the Italian said.
"We did not keep possession enough with the extra man and we
were not as sparkling as we could have been. But we are pleased
we won the game to go through and over the two legs I think we
were the better side and deserved to win it."
Benfica started - and finished - as the brighter, more
attacking, more cohesive side but Chelsea went ahead when
Lampard scored a penalty after Garcia clattered into Ashley
Lampard converted even though Artur got a hand to the ball.
Benfica were then reduced to 10 men after Pereira recklessly
picked up a second booking but the Portuguese responded strongly
after the break with Aimar forcing Petr Cech into one of a
number of fine saves.
"Cech was their best player, that says a lot," said Jesus.
Chelsea did defend well especially when their skipper John
Terry, who went off after an hour as a precaution after taking a
knock, cleared a shot from Oscar Cardozo off the line in the
While there is little doubt Chelsea's results and displays
have improved since Di Matteo took over from the sacked Andre
Villas-Boas a month ago, with seven wins out of nine, they still
look short of flair and imagination.
Striker Fernando Torres, who has at least started scoring
again, worked tirelessly but is still misfiring in front of goal
while Ramires summed up their erratic play when he trod on the
ball and heeled it away - a metre out from an open goal.
Benfica, who won the second and last of their two European
Cups 50 years ago, came into the match having scored in all of
their Champions League away games and went out with that record
intact but it was little consolation.
Chelsea though, having protected their own formidable home
record, are left relishing facing Barcelona again after losing
to them in an acrimonious semi-final three years ago.
"They are one of the best teams in the world and have
reached the final and won the trophy many times and we are
looking forward to it," said Di Matteo.
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