Pitchside Europe

‘Rare Specimen’ Willian could hold key to Chelsea’s Eurovision

The Champions League can often be a welcome distraction from the rigours of domestic football for some sides. Whether they are challenging for the title back at home or just simply battling to remain relevant, Europe’s elite competition offers teams short-term targets as opposed to the long, drawn-out siege top-flight football can resemble.

While Manchester United may fall into the category of attempting to stay relevant, Chelsea are having rather a different season. An identity crisis is not even registering in the thoughts of those at Stamford Bridge, let alone actually being prevalent.

Nevertheless, manager Jose Mourinho continues to bat away suggestions that his side are in any way favourites at home or in Europe this season.

In the Premier League they are top after 27 games, one point ahead of Arsenal, and Mourinho’s side have had such grit and conviction about them – particularly against the bigger sides – that to count them as anything but favourites would be daft. Most rightly greet his deflections with a snort of derision.

But, of course, Mourinho is a master of manipulation and his expert management of expectations has clearly been effective. After all, it is not counting against them.

Chelsea restart their Champions League campaign on Wednesday, facing Galatasaray - and Chelsea hero Didier Drogba - in Istanbul after breezing through the group stage. Although the Turks came through a group containing both Real Madrid and Juventus, Mourinho has not – somewhat disappointingly – claimed his team will be underdogs for this two-legged tie.

The Premier League side came through a far less intimidating group, striding past Schalke, Basel and Steaua Bucharest, and such matches allowed Brazilian attacker Willian to stake his claim for a first-team place.

With Juan Mata gone, he has since become an integral part of Mourinho’s starting XI, and it is easy to see why he could play an even bigger role the closer to the final Chelsea get.

Overlooking his obvious technical attributes, Willian is a seemingly rare specimen in that not only is he talented in possession, but off the ball he has startlingly good work rate. Regularly he is seen tracking back, providing defensive support, but impressive stamina allows the former Shakhtar Donetsk man to remain a menace in the final third as well.

Sir Alex Ferguson continuously accentuated the value of deploying Park Ji-Sung in big European matches where proceedings may be tight and United could find themselves under the cosh. Although unspectacular, the South Korean played his part so effectively.

Willian might be able to be of similar influence to Chelsea, but where he comes up trumps is that, technically, he is far more talented.

During his five group stage appearances, Willian excelled on the ball and he certainly showcased his close control and he completed 64 per cent of his attempted take-ons. This was not quite as good as Eden Hazard’s 75 per cent success rate, though.

Where Willian left all of his team-mates in the dust, however, was in chance creation. He laid on 10 chances during his five appearances, and if you are armed with a calculator and some solid concentration, you will no doubt eventually work out that is an average of two per game.

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Frank Lampard and Samuel Eto’o (both created seven chances) are left trailing in his wake, while the former played a game more.

While Willian was unable to find the net and less than half (48.1 per cent) of his passes were played forward, he has so far accumulated two assists and his excellent chance creation rate highlights commendable productivity in attack.

The 25-year-old took a while to win over his manager at the start of the season, but his all-action characteristics, eye-catching technical attributes and vision seemingly helped win the Portuguese coach over. Legitimate international recognition appears to be just around the corner too.

If he can continue to produce effective displays consistently – as he has done recently – then Willian will play a major role in any title challenge(s) this season.