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Nemanja Matic’s Header Proves Decisive For Chelsea At Sporting Lisbon

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JOSE Mourinho strode on to the turf at the final whistle, marching pointedly into his opponents’ half to offer his hand to the Sporting goalkeeper, Rui Patrício, as he trudged away from the goal-mouth digesting defeat. The gesture told some of the story of Chelsea’s utter dominance as they delivered a first proper statement of intent on a group they now lead. The scoreline may have been tight, but this was something akin to a one-goal thrashing. Yet the suspicion remained this was also a manager seeking to deflect attention.

His side should have run up a cricket score in Lisbon against a youthful yet horribly naive opponent but, instead, were undermined by profligacy and forced to endure the odd pang of anxiety in stoppage time at the end. From the second minute to the 92nd, this had been a procession of Chelsea chances spurned, their only reward secured by the outstanding Nemanja Matic, a former Benfica player, from one of the more awkward opportunities they had created. Had the lead been more assured in that second half then bodies might have been retired to rest up ahead of Arsenal’s visit in the Premier League. As it was, that privilege was denied Mourinho and his staff.

Diego Costa, whose suspect hamstring is fast becoming a tiresome theme of the campaign, was forced to play through the whole contest. The same applied to Cesc Fàbregas with the visiting defence, albeit untroubled for long periods, left on edge until the last.

“We had so many chances to kill it off, but it was just one of those nights where it didn’t quite go in for us,” offered John Terry, who did at least have a clean sheet to celebrate as he completed a century of Champions League appearances. Rui Patrício had, indeed, excelled as Mourinho’s handshake suggested, flinging himself in front of shots from Costa to Mohamed Salah, Oscar to Andre Schürrle. But the finishing was worryingly slack. Better sides than Sporting would have mounted more prolonged pressure as the contest dragged on, the scoreline still tight. Instead, Nani and the substitute Fredy Montero flashed late attempts wide and Chelsea escaped.

There will inevitably be nights like this over the course of a campaign, occasions when a glut of chances are created only for the forwards’ radar to be skew-whiff when composure is required. Perhaps the visitors had been left dizzied by the lazar pens shone from the stands into a number of their players’ eyes over the course of the evening. Maybe they were thrown slightly off kilter by the aggressive nature of some of the hosts’ tackling as they sought a make an impression of their own. Yet Sporting should still have been dispatched sooner, and probably long before the interval. Bayern Munich had won 5-0 the last time the Alvalade staged a tie in the Champions League proper, five years ago. A repeat would not have been outlandish.

Sporting’s manager, Marco Silva, spoke about satisfaction at his team’s second half display but he will still have retired scorched by what was essentially a humbling experience. There were gaping holes in his side’s ragged back-line from the opening exchanges, the yawning distance between the centre-halves, Mauricio and Naby Sarr, enough to have Fàbregas and Oscar – players always seeking to thread a delicate through-ball – drooling while William Carvalho struggled with his bearings at the base of the home midfield. He was eventually booked for bringing down Eden Hazard, the only surprise being he had been able to locate the Belgian to make sufficient contact. The whole rearguard felt rather befuddled, an accident waiting to happen.

Within 100 seconds of the start, Oscar had slipped Costa clear to test the tightness of that thigh muscle only for Rui Patrício to conjure the first of his interceptions. Schürrle should have registered a first half hat-trick. He had been denied 12 times against Bolton last Wednesday in the Capital One Cup. Add the four missed here and, at some stage, misfortune has to be discounted as a mitigating circumstance for his lack of plunder. He retired before the hour rather perplexed by it all.

The World Cup winner was most culpable when steering Hazard’s pull-back wide of the far post midway through the period with the goal at his mercy and Rui Patrício resigned to a concession. That felt less costly when Andre Carrillo floored Hazard yet again and Fàbregas clipped his free-kick early while Sporting dawdled.

Matic, heckled for his connections with those across the capital, was unmarked beyond the far post but had to crunch back his neck muscles to arc a header over the goalkeeper and finally prise out the visitors’ lead.

The positive spin on what ensued, with chances spurned on the break as Sporting desperately tried to muster some momentum of their own, is that Chelsea were relatively comfortable at the back and continued to create and are capable of slicing opponents to shreds on the counter.

But even that needs a proper context: the Portuguese were so ramshackle that they even shipped opportunities from attacking free-kicks on the edge of the visitors’ penalty area. Mauricio ended up hauling down Costa on that particular charge up-field from one simple, hacked clearance with the defender departing bloodied and bruised on a stretcher.

Sterner opposition would not have parted so obligingly. Indeed, while Arsenal had wilted alarmingly at Stamford Bridge last season to surrender 6-0, they will surely be more steeled on Sunday’s return.

This was less about Rui Patrício’s heroics, and more about Chelsea’s wastefulness. They escaped unharmed on this occasion, an away win establishing them at the top of Group G, but Mourinho will demand they are not as clumsy in front of goal from now on in. This team is capable of being more ruthless than this. – The Guardian

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