David Luiz sneaks Chelsea win in Basel
Londoners take Europa League semi-final lead back to Stamford Bridge, despite valiant effort from homeside
FC Basel’s goalkeeper Yann Sommer fails to save a goal by Chelsea’s Victor Moses (far right) during their Europa League semi-final first leg soccer match at St. Jakob Park Stadium. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters
Chelsea were dominant and only their profligacy a nagging concern until David Luiz scored the winner with a fortuitous free-kick in injury time. Basel had equalised late on, when Jacques Zoua’s header had found Valentin Stocker with Chelsea momentarily panicked, but there still seemed little contact from Cesar Azpilicueta to prompt the referee to point to the spot.
Chelsea were aghast as the Czech official pointed to the spot, with Fabian Schar thumping in the penalty. This had always seemed destined to be an awkward occasion, the memory of how uncomfortable Basel had made life for Tottenham Hotspur in both legs of a quarter-final eventually won via a penalty shoot-out still fresh, and Chelsea still balancing their only remaining pursuit of a trophy with the hierarchy’s principal objective of qualification for next season’s Champions League.
This was game 62 of a draining campaign even if, for once, they could not point to their opponents’ comparative freshness as an excuse for sloppiness. Basel’s own season began back on 13 July and if January friendlies are taken into account, Murat Yakin’s side had played only one fewer match than the visitors.
Benitez’s hope was that experience, as much as pedigree, might prevail in the club’s seventh European semi-final of the past decade.
It was reassuring to see Ashley Cole restored at left-back, after a hamstring injury, to combat Mohamed Salah, the 32-year-old slipping back into the rhythm of his defensive duties as if he had never been away. The sight of John Terry and Frank Lampard, a calming influence in midfield as Serey Die attempted to wrest control of the centre, had the effect of a show of strength while Luiz stepped further upfield to offer his maverick blend of showmanship and aggression in a holding role.
Basel had hoped to pour at the London club, sweeping down either flank and unsettle the European champions with bustling energy and eager class. Yet by the interval, it was Chelsea who led.
Indeed, they departed frustrated not to have added to Victor Moses’ opener. The flashes of profligacy were exasperating. Immediately before the interval, Basel’s dismal attempt to build from the back saw Fernando Torres supply Moses, with the Nigerian charging unchecked towards the penalty area.
His slipped pass inside for Eden Hazard afforded the Belgian time to gather and approach the penalty spot, only to poke a right-footed shot wide as Park Joo-ho slid in and Yann Sommer charged out. The ball dribbled away and
Chelsea cursed the miss.
Hazard had actually been outstanding in the playmaker role, deputising for the rested Juan Mata, with his supply-line for Torres exemplary at times.
It was just his finishing that was wasteful, a skied effort over the bar moments earlier having set the tone.
Hazard had still played his part in forcing the visitors ahead. It had been his delicious pass inside Park that sent Cesar Azpilicueta scurrying clear, the Spaniard’s cross volleyed down into the turf by Lampard with Sommer doing well to turn the effort round his near-post.
From the veteran’s subsequent corner, Branislav Ivanovic leapt and missed but the Basel centre-halves were confused by his mere presence and the ball struck Moses to bounce down and over Mohamed Elneny on the goal-line. That was the Chelsea man’s third reward in five appearances in this competition.
If it was a fortunate finish, the winger’s direct running had banked him credit. Perhaps the Swiss team had been inhibited by the occasion, bidding as they were to become the country’s first Uefa finalists, but their response up to the interval had been blunt.
Fabian Schar battered a shot from distance that flicked off Luiz for Petr Cech to turn over the bar, but neither Salah — who had so scorched Spurs — nor Valentin Stocker had imposed themselves.
Yakin initiated a response thereafter, Stocker’s interchange with Marco Streller allowing the winger to wriggle beyond Luiz and Lampard, and scuff a shot on to a post before Terry could suffocate the threat. Cech stood helpless but the ball rebounded away.
That was an escape, though Chelsea had at least been warned. But for all Basel’s added urgency, they remained vulnerable. Hazard, a player revelling in his free role, was soon veering beyond Schar’s wild challenge on the edge of the area to scamper to the byline and conjure a neat cutback for Torres.
The Spaniard has thrived in this competition to date and connected sweetly with his left foot only for celebrations to be choked by the sight of the ball cannoning from a post, back across goal and out of play. There was a desperation to the home side thereafter, Aleksandar Dragovic fortunate to escape with only a caution for a two-foot lunge on Torres and Chelsea forever hinting at further goals on the counter-attack.
There is still a little work to be done if the fourth semi-final of Chelsea’s campaign is to yield a second final of term, however, although Luiz’s lucky winner has eased the situation and raised the prospect of back-to-back European titles.