Eden Hazard taps out - Michael Steele
Chelsea's bid to defend their Champions League title took a bit of a blow as the Kings of Europe were thoroughly outclassed, outplayed, and out-hustled in Ukraine.
There are no easy games in the Champions League. Especially when facing a team that had not lost a competitive match in 11 months. If Chelsea's six-match winning streak coming into Tuesday night was impressive, Shakhtar's 32 wins from 34 was off-the-charts mind-boggling.
Like a floating point out of bounds exception, such consistent excellence is not easily comprehended. In fact, one could be forgiven for perhaps not caring too much at all about Shakhtar Donetsk - they do not play in a mainstream European league after all, so how good could they really be? Seeing the performance of their sheer rocket-fuel-powered attacking force, the answer turns out to be a resounding "very good".
Most fans knew that Chelsea would have a tougher time in Ukraine than a fortnight ago in Denmark, but I don't think many of them expected the Blues to get such a lesson in attacking shock & awe. Only a rather fantastic performance from Petr Cech kept the scoreline to a somewhat respectable 2-1. Goals from Alex Teixeira and Fernandinho early in each half sent the hosts on their way to a well deserved victory, while Oscar's late consolation coupled with Juventus dropping points means that Chelsea are not yet in a horrible situation as far as qualification to the knockout round is concerned.
Roberto Di Matteo seemed to have a good inkling of the danger that the Ukrainian side possessed, putting out a starting lineup more reminiscent of last season's counter-attacking masters, than this season's mantra of fun-fun-flair. The Frank Lampard - John Obi Mikel double pivot was reinstated while Ramires was pushed out to the right flank as the speedy outlet. With Juan Mata on the left and Oscar in the middle, Di Matteo essentially went with the same midfield as when Chelsea faced Messi & Co. in Barcelona.
Unfortunately for the manager, the master plan started unraveling as soon as the 2nd minute. David Luiz's failure to clear a simple throw-in led to a shot, partially blocked by John Terry's arm, to roll kindly to Alex Teixeira (left to his own devices by Ashley Cole) who made no mistake in slotting past Cech. Not 15 minutes later, Frank Lampard's 100th European start ended in injury and forced a quick rethink: out went the old method and with Eden Hazard's introduction, back in came the new of this young season.
While Hazard's entrance gave a lift to the attack, it opened up space in the midfield that Shakhtar made regular and efficient use of. Coupled with a worrying inability to competitively defend any sort of set piece, Chelsea's defensive six were exploited easily and forcefully, time and time again. Wasteful finishing by the tricksy lighting-quick Willian, the shades-of-mini-Drogba Luiz Adriano, the great-white-Armenian-hope Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and some impressive arms-flailing acrobatics from Petr Cech conspired to keep the score just 1-0 into half time.
Chelsea's much-vaunted attacking band failed to impose their usual will and skill on the match. Although the second half began in more incisive fashion, Juan Mata was largely anonymous while Oscar and Eden Hazard gave the ball away far more often than producing anything worthy of note. It was in fact the latter who was caught dallying on the ball in the 52nd minute.
With Shakhtar pressing actively, Mikel and Ramires worked the ball to Hazard who had dropped deep to help. The Belgian however did not act quick enough for the situation and he was dispossessed. The Ukranians (well, Brazilians, to be exact) bombed forward en masse for their umpteenth counter attack, Luiz Adriano releasing the impressive Fernandinho who finished coolly past Cech into the bottom far corner. The 27-year-old's Ramires-style lung-bursting run from deep was just a small facet of his overall, game-controlling display.
Having started the second half with some semblance of control, Chelsea were suddenly two behind. A comeback looked unlikely with the darkest timeline version of Fernando Torres roaming around out there in full force. The Spaniard was hauled off in favor of Daniel Sturridge in the 70th minute.
Out of any further attacking options left on the bench but with Shakhtar Donetsk completely content to sit back and counter (Luiz Adriano, Tomas Hubschmann, and Fernandinho all wasting decent chances), Chelsea finally started showing some assertiveness. Eden Hazard fashioned a few decent opportunities. Sturridge showed more drive with one turn-n-shot than Torres had all game. And then with just three minutes left, a powerful run by Branislav Ivanovic created an easy chance for Oscar - yet another Brazilian scoring on a cold Tuesday night in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, any smidgen of hope from the consolation goal quickly petered out in the three minutes of added time; the final scoreline nowhere near a true reflection of Chelsea's thoroughly second best showing on the night. Fortunately, Juventus dropped two points in Denmark and so the Blues remain in second place in Group E. Six points out of the next nine (home v. Shakhtar & FCN; away v. Juventus) will surely be needed to ensure qualification into the knockout round.