Chelsea’s Champions League group game against Nordsjaelland may ultimately prove to be a dead rubber if Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus draw in the Ukraine. But it is one that beyond the slim chance of qualification for the knockout stages could prove to be an important game for the club, especially for their under siege boss Rafael Benitez.
Chelsea come into this game on the back of a 3-1 defeat to West Ham and on their worst run of results in 18 years. It is now an accepted wisdom that the manager’s position at Chelsea is something of a poisoned chalice, albeit with a comfortable financial cushion on which to land when the owner loses his patience, but the embryonic reign of Benitez looks as though it could be over before it has really begun.
Chelsea need to start playing again, and fast. But this comes through confidence and that can come through a slice of luck. At times in the first half on Saturday, Chelsea played with the kind of verve and swagger that should come with having some of the World’s best players in your ranks, but with Juan Mata hitting and Edin Hazard missing good chances to double their lead before the break, luck deserted them. The second half saw a side bereft of confidence bullied and harassed to defeat by Sam Allardyce’s Hammers.
The reverse fixture against Nordsjaelland in October saw Chelsea run out 4-0 victors. Prior to that game, Chelsea had smashed six past a hapless Wolves side in the Carling Cup and had beaten Arsenal 2-1 away. After that victory in Denmark, two four goal salvos against Norwich and Spurs saw them sitting comfortably at the top of the table. Chelsea then lost the now infamous game to Manchester United at Stamford Bridge 3-2, and barring a solitary extra time win against the same opposition in the Carling Cup, have not won since.
A repeat performance against Nordsjaelland would bring some welcome respite for Benitez, who could record his first victory as Chelsea boss. While it may not silence the boo boys at the Bridge, it may serve to lift the players out of the funk that currently surrounds them. Nordsjaelland themselves have nothing to lose, but a defence that currently stands with a Champions League goal difference of minus 13 should provide Chelsea’s misfiring yet outstanding attacking talent with opportunities aplenty.
Benitez has made much of the need to get Fernando Torres happy and scoring goals again. There is perhaps no better chance for the once seemingly invincible Spaniard to feel the joy of hitting the back of the net again. Mata, a shining light in the Upton Park gloom last weekend, could supply his compatriot with the chances to score the goals he so desperately needs before the crowd turn their vitriol onto him.
In some ways, Chelsea themselves have nothing to lose. A Europa League spot is guaranteed, although that may be about as welcome at Stamford Bridge as a Rafael Benitez poster on a Chelsea fan’s bedroom wall, but it is by no means certain that Juventus and Shakhtar will draw in the Ukraine. The riches available to both clubs in progressing further than the first knockout round by winning the group and thus avoiding the other group winners and supposed better teams shouldn’t be underestimated. Shakhtar at least, with home advantage, may seize the initiative.
Chelsea can still sniff an opportunity to progress, but regardless, have the chance to go through or go out in style. It might not be the sternest test they’ll face this season, but if Chelsea have hit rock bottom, and recent results would suggest it can’t get much worse, a victory on Wednesday night would at least represent something positive for Benitez and the fans alike, and the possibility of the team re-discovering their stunning early season form.