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Old 04-04-2012, 09:00 PM
fred tissue
 
Default Chelsea 2-1 Benfica (3-1 agg)




Stamford Bridge, once again, feels like a happy place to be. It has been a difficult, frequently ignominious season but the team have navigated a route to the Champions League semi-finals, and that itself feels like a legitimate reason to celebrate given everything that has gone before.

This is the sixth time in nine years they have reached this stage and they are entitled to cherish that kind of sustained success, even if it is difficult to get away from the fact it leaves them with a two-legged tie against that assembly of football doyens otherwise known as Barcelona.

It is a daunting proposition, starting with a home leg on 18 April and a trip to Camp Nou six days later, and all that can be said with certainty is that Chelsea will need to be considerably better than they were here against a Benfica side who had to play the majority of the game with 10 men.

Javi García's 85th-minute equaliser, with a free header direct from a corner, would have been a terrible goal to concede at any time, but here it sparked a brief spell of something approaching panic. There were moments in a nerve-shredding finale, when Benfica had the chances to score an almost improbable winner, and qualify on away goals, before the substitute Raul Meireles confirmed the win with a breakaway goal two minutes into stoppage time.

Roberto Di Matteo's team had struggled at first to get any momentum, misplacing places and demonstrating the kind of occasional carelessness that meant John Terry could be seen angrily remonstrating with his team-mates before even a quarter of an hour had been played.

Yet Benfica came into this match with four centre-halves ruled out because of injury including the two Brazilians, Luisão and Jardel, who had played in the first leg. Javi García, a central midfielder by trade, and Emerson, a left-back, filled the roles and Alex Witsel, another midfielder, was moved to right-back once Maxi Pereira had been sent off. With such an experimental back-four, it was probably not surprising they were vulnerable.

Lampard's penalty, for example, originated from a simple error of positioning from García after Ashley Cole had surged forward on one of his overlapping runs from left-back. The Benfica player was caught the wrong side of his man and, despite long and vociferous protests, it was a clear barge as he tried to prevent his opponent from getting into a shooting position. Lampard's penalty was struck well, to the right of Artur, though a little fortunate that it went under the goalkeeper's right hand.

Benfica had been on top at the time, threatening Petr Cech's goal with greater frequency than they had managed at Estádio da Luz eight days earlier. Jorge Jesus's team began the game playing with a mix of adventure and belief and they responded well, too, once Lampard's penalty had soothed the home crowd's nerves.

They were undone, however, by a combination of a trigger-happy Slovenian referee, Damir Skomina, and their own indiscipline. Skomina's last visit to London was the tie between Arsenal and Milan that resulted in Arsène Wenger getting a three-match ban for berating him at the final whistle and then criticising him in his post-match comments.

This time it was Jesus, the Benfica coach, waiting to confront him after an opening half in which the total of six yellow cards, two leading to the red, was totally out of keeping with the game. Four of those, all Benfica players, were for dissent and Maxi, as one of them, ought to have shown more caution in the 40th-minute challenge on Mikel John Obi that brought his second yellow.

Two-nil down, a player short, Benfica could conceivably have waved a white flag at this point. Instead, they began the second half as they had the first and Oscar Cardozo, a difficult opponent over the two legs, was denied only by Cech's goalkeeping. Cardozo could also reflect on a first-half chance when Terry had cleared his shot from the goalline but it was also inevitable there would be times when Chelsea found more gaps in the Portuguese team's defence.

Five minutes into the second half Salomon Kalou flicked a post with a left-foot shot and, from almost point-blank range, the rebound somehow eluded Ramires. Fernando Torres, sharper than at other times this season but still some considerable distance off his best, then turned a shot narrowly wide and, shortly afterwards, was unable to hook in the follow-up after Artur had beaten out Juan Mata's shot. By this stage there was the first clear sense that Benfica appeared to be losing belief.

Terry was forced off with a recurrence of his back problem shortly before the hour and it was here that Chelsea started to look more susceptible, culminating in García's glancing header for the equaliser. It was Meireles, though, who added the final flourish, running 40 yards to score with a thumping drive.
Daniel Taylor

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