Cyprus may be the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty, but this was far from pretty. Chelsea got straight back into the winning groove after their shock defeat at Wigan and secured their first win outside England for nearly two years.
Nicolas Anelka’s fourth goal of the season, a rare moment of clear thinking in a frantic and scrappy game, has them perched neatly on the top of Group D with maximum points from two games.
But manager Carlo Ancelotti was not satisfied as his team failed to sparkle and ended up clinging on against Champions League newboys APOEL.
He confessed they were lucky to escape with three points, for which they can thank Anelka. Chelsea had arrived here determined to recapture the winning habit after Saturday’s surprise defeat ruined a run of eight victories.
You won’t like us when we’re angry — that was the message from inside the camp, so perhaps it was only right Anelka stepped forward. He was known as the Incredible Sulk in moodier days.
Last night, he was asked to lead the line again in the absence of Didier Drogba, who was serving the second of his three-game ban for his X-rated rant into a TV camera after last season’s Champions League semi-final loss to Barcelona.
Anelka responded well to the responsibility, sometimes dropping deep to link up play, chasing in the channels at other times and taking his goal coolly.
Salomon Kalou released Juliano Belletti in space on the right and the Brazilian jinked inside before dragging a smart pass back to Anelka, lurking on the edge of the penalty area.
Without taking a touch to control the ball, he clipped it into the far corner with his right foot, fading it beyond goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis. It was Anelka’s fourth of the season and his second in Europe.
He scored the only goal of the game in Chelsea’s first European tie of the season, at home to Porto.
Ancelotti said: ‘Anelka is scoring at a good time and that’s important. He moved very well out there, not only in scoring but in front of our attack. This is good.’
APOEL had started well against their illustrious visitors, cheered on loudly by 22,000 packed inside the GSP Stadium for their first proper Champions League game. The fans were packed in well before kick-off, whipping up a wonderful atmosphere, as it was when they beat FC Copenhagen here to qualify for the group stage.
Partizan Belgrade were another experienced team to lose in Nicosia in the qualifying rounds and the Cypriot champions held Atletico Madrid to a goalless draw in Spain in their Group D opener.
The warnings were there for Chelsea but they were slow to find their rhythm, with APOEL pinging the ball around confidently in triangles neat enough to have made Pythagoras swell with pride. Bald striker Nenad Mirosavljevic was spinning wide to cause Branislav Ivanovic problems.
Ivanovic rarely looks like a full back with everything under control but he survived his early wobble and Ancelotti’s team slowly took control. By the time Anelka struck in the 18th minute, they were in command but the goal that ought to have been a nervesettler only prompted them to lose their focus again.
APOEL squandered the opportunity to strike back immediately when the ball dropped to Constantinos Charalambides in a crowded penalty box but he slashed a shot high and wide.
Charalambides proved wasteful to the end, missing his team’s best chance of an equaliser with a diving header at the back post, which he lifted over the bar, when Chelsea’s back four had been dragged out of position.
Early in the second half, APOEL manager Ivan Jovanovic sent on Kamil Kosowski, not considered fit enough to start after injury problems, and he injected new urgency into the Cypriot champions.
Chelsea panicked as the momentum swung against them. Ivanovic came under pressure again and Florent Malouda made mistakes in dangerous areas.
It was a careless Malouda header which presented Savvas Poursaitides with a glimpse of goal in the 65th minute but Petr Cech, sent off at Wigan, made a fine save with his left boot.
APOEL went close again from the corner which followed as Ashley Cole had to be alert at the back post to clear a dangerous cross from Charalambides and John Terry came to the rescue more than once.
APOEL NICOSIA (4-2-3-1): Chiotis 5;Poursaitides 6, Kontis 6, Grncarov 6,Haxhi 5; Morais 5, Michail 6(Breska 80min); Alexandrou 5 (Kosowski 58, 6), Pinto 5, Charalambides 5 (Paulista 85); Mirosavljevic 6.
CHELSEA (4-3-2-1): Cech 6; Ivanovic 5, Carvalho 6, Terry 6, A Cole 7; Belletti 6 (Deco 68, 5), Essien 7,Lampard6; Kalou 6 (J Cole 80), Malouda 5; Anelka 7.
Booked: Kalou, Ivanovic.
Man of the match: Nicolas Anelka.
Referee: Bertrand Layec (France).
At least Ancelotti, flapping his arms in exasperation on the touchline, knew something had to be done to protect the lead.
He sent on Deco to nurture possession and it helped take the menace out of the home team’s attacking. Malouda should have made it safe when he arrived on the end of a low cross from Ivanovic but his effort was feeble and easily saved by Chiotis.
At least AC Milan, Ancelotti’s former club who lost at home to FC Zurich last night, proved it could have been far worse.
‘I’m very disappointed for this but it shows there are no easy games in the Champions League,’ said Ancelotti.
‘We are happy. Joe Cole has started to play and Deco is in good condition.
‘We’ve rested Michael Ballack for Sunday against Liverpool and we have Drogba and Jose Bosingwa.’
What would Liverpool have given for an ugly away win in beautiful Florence on Tuesday?