Twice Sparta Prague broke away in the final minutes. Twice they would have won the tie 2-1 and eliminated Chelsea from Europe had their final shot taken a marginally different trajectory. Rafa Benitez was spared his greatest embarrassment at Stamford Bridge, and maybe the sack, by as slim a margin as a few split-seconds, a couple of degrees of rotation of a boot or one or two inches in lateral movement.
As it happened, Eden Hazard edged Chelsea past Sparta Prague with a thunderous penultimate kick of the game - a moment of glaring, precise quality that was entirely out of keeping with Chelsea’s slightly chaotic performance.
As Sparta’s players milked the applause of the enthusiastic away fans – all decked out in matching stripy bobble hats in a scene that resembled a particularly tricky Where's Wally puzzle – it was clear the 1-1 draw on the night was no cause for prolonged celebration for the home contingent, beyond the initial burst of head-melting euphoria that any decisive late goal brings.
The excellence of Hazard’s goal was as incongruous to this Chelsea performance as the décor at Stamford Bridge that saw banners reading ‘Champions of Europe’ flanked by massive drapes with the rather less starry Europa League trophy on them. A reminder of, in the words of Bunk Moreland, how far they done fell.
For a while, after what could have been the game’s defining moment, they looked capable of tumbling even further and out of Europe altogether.
The timing couldn’t have been any crueller for Benitez either. Just as the denizens of Stamford Bridge were rising to their feet to join in the customary minute’s applause for Roberto Di Matteo with 16 minutes on the scoreboard, David Lafata swept the ball home to remind them of the ongoing tribulations of the man who replaced the Italian.
Previously, Europe had been a minor sanctuary for Benitez. The Capital One Cup witnessed bitter disappointment at the hands of Swansea, the Premier League has been a non-event and the FA Cup a bumpy ride with a draw at Brentford. On the continent, by contrast, he had been rather more blameless. Benitez had overseen a 6-1 humping of Nordsjaelland and then, in the lower competition Chelsea were parachuted into due to Di Matteo’s failings, a decent enough 1-0 win away at Sparta in the first leg last week.
Clearly Chelsea expected more of the same at Stamford Bridge. John Terry even explained in his programme notes that he was viewing the match as a 45-minute contest ahead of a greater challenge in the Premier League at the weekend. “We must start the game well and look to kill off Sparta Prague in the first half,” said the captain, “with the game against Manchester City on Sunday in the back of our minds.”
But they didn’t so much kill off Sparta in the first half as breathe life into their opponents. In a performance as sloppy as a French kiss off Jabba the Hut, Chelsea gave the ball away with alarming frequency. At the peak of this tower of ineptitude, though, was Fernando Torres. It is barely worth recording these days when the striker fumbles his way through a game like a nervous teenager encountering a bra for the first time, yet to see a once princely player struggle so badly with his confidence and technique never loses the capacity to shock.
Groans from the home fans greeted his poorly-executed passes; finishing was a perennial problem too, one fantastic early chance was dragged wide of the post and then a golden opportunity as a close-range header looped over the bar close to half-time. The misses continued after the break as Tomas Vaclik rushed quickly off his line to claw away the striker’s attempt at a dinked finish.
To think it was once argued that the arrival of Benitez would bring the best out of him. The fact the new boss might be some kind of messianic Torres Whisperer was supposed to be the only tangible upside to an appointment that united the supporters in anger and disbelief. But the suspicion is beginning to grow that Torres, much like his manager, is beyond saving.
Benitez certainly made a good fist of defending his compatriot in a post-match press conference that repeatedly alighted on the subject of the £50m striker.
"He had four chances,” he said. “I have seen some games where he was not in the right position. Today he had chances ... He was working hard for the team ... Obviously when we came he was scoring goals and after he is not scoring. Next time I am sure he will score one or two goals ... He's not scoring, but he is playing better. Today he was not playing bad. He was doing a great job for the team ... If he continues working like today and playing like today, he will score goals. I am convinced about that.”
Few others are. Even fewer are convinced by Benitez – and Hazard’s heroics are hardly going to turn the crowd in his favour, not when ill-feeling is this entrenched. Second-half chants of “f*** off Benitez, you’re not wanted here” were followed by Sparta almost going 2-0 up through Marek Matejovsky, and the following ditty to be heard was for Jose Mourinho. Next on the playlist was “You don’t know what you’re doing” as Oscar was removed for Hazard – given what transpired with 10 seconds remaining, that one rung a little hollow in retrospect.
Prior to Hazard's stunning intervention, Chelsea wasted plenty of other chances to win it in the second half – Tomas Vaclic made a succession of fine saves in the Sparta goal, Ramires struck the outside of the post and Victor Moses lifted a shot over the bar from close range – yet there was a distinct sense of injustice when the Belgian finally fired the ball into the top corner with the seconds ebbing away.
Hazard and pals may be through to the last 16, but it was Sparta's fans holding an impromptu party in the stands. Chelsea, with Benitez in charge and Torres a frustrating facsimile of his former self, inspire less cause for celebration.
- - -
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I am very proud of the club and the players even though we lost the tie. The club and players showed why we are part of the world's greatest football family." - Fair enough, Liverpool showed great character to come back from Jamie Carragher's early error and beat Zenit 3-1, going out on away goals, but "the world's greatest football family?" Is Brendan Rodgers doing this for a joke now?
FOREIGN VIEW: Reigning Libertadores Cup champions Corinthians have been ordered to play their upcoming home matches in the tournament behind closed doors, after their fans were accused of killing a young Bolivian supporter with a thrown firework. Bolivian police have opened an investigation after the 14-year-old was killed during San Jose's match against the Brazilian side on Wednesday.
COMING UP: We preview all of the week’s games in the Premier League, as well as the League Cup final between Swansea City and Bradford City on Sunday. This morning we publish the second part of our exclusive interview with Stoke City manager Tony Pulis, while Jim White also files his latest column and the Fantasist chips in with another live chat ahead of the weekend.