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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Through, but only just. Chelsea survived a scare to book their place in the next round of the Champions League, but their progression was anything from straightforward on another nervy night for Luiz Felipe Scolari. Roma's victory over Bordeaux meant that this result was academic, but there was a period, after FC Cluj had equalised and with the match at the Stadio Olimpico deadlocked, when elimination seemed a possibility.

It is a measure of the irrelevance of the Champions League group stage that Chelsea fans were actually aggrieved at having to go to the final match in order to secure their place in the next stage. 13 of the 16 qualifying slots were filled on Matchday 5, and yet here were Chelsea slogging it out until the end. Oh, the injustice of it all. They needn't have worried too much. This stage of the competition was not designed to be interesting, it was designed to make money. When the news of Roma's first goal filtered through to Stamford Bridge, the atmosphere lifted audibly. The gravy train will rattle on for a while yet.

Chelsea were, once again, some distance below their best. Passes went astray, crosses were hammered in too deep and the Romanians had far too much freedom in the final third. The beautiful football that bewitched neutrals in the opening months of the season has vanished, replaced by a plodding patient game that is as bemusing as it is ineffective. The injury to Michael Essien has robbed Scolari of his midfield dynamo and the longer that Ricardo Carvalho remains on the sidelines, the more people realise just how important he was to this team.

Another headache is developing in the selection of a striker. Nicolas Anelka, while rarely playing particularly well, has racked up 13 league goals already, but the team is designed for Didier Drogba. The big Ivorian remains popular at Stamford Bridge, despite having endured such a poor 2008, and the fans roared him onto the pitch when he replaced Salomon Kalou in the second half. His winning goal was first class, controlling the ball deftly with his first touch and poking home without even drawing back his foot. With Drogba comes aerial superiority, physical presence and moments of genuine brilliance. Will Scolari tinker with the formation or will 'Le Incredible Sulk' be pouting on the bench as Drogba replaces him up front?

Scolari insisted afterwards that the disappointment of finishing in second place in the group was of no consequence, inviting the arrival of Europe's top teams.

"I am happy to play anyone," he insisted. "For me it’s no difference if we play Barcelona, Real Madrid or Inter Milan. If we want to get to the final, we have to play any of them anyway."

He's absolutely right of course, but Chelsea will have to improve significantly if they're to be able to match them. For just a short period on Tuesday night, his team managed to put their qualification in the balance, something that is practically impossible in this protracted, money-spinning group stage . The Champions League, finally, is about to get interesting. Will Chelsea be able to keep the pace?

BALL HOG - Will somebody please tell John Obi Mikel that he can't shoot? An impressive performance in front of the defence was ruined by his mistaken belief that he can score goals. Instead of passing the ball to someone who could put a shot on target, he went alone and wasted possession. Know your strengths!

ELECTRIC - Emmanuel Culio won't be at FC Cluj for very much longer. The Argentine frontman was excellent here and will have caught the attention of someone in one more of the recognised European leagues. With the Romanians hit hard by the credit crunch, he'll surely be gone in January.

HEARTBREAK - The dream is over for Cluj. The Romanians beat Roma in their first game and held Chelsea in their second. They must have thought that qualification was possible. But with chaotic events behind the scenes and an economic crisis, this will probably be the last we see of them.

PUNTERS RANT - Most people would have backed Chelsea, even with their wobbly home record, but it was touch and go for a while. There will have been a lot of betting slips on the brink of being torn up, but the arrival of Didier Drogba must have brought a collective sigh of relief from punters.

MAN OF THE MATCH - Chelsea didn't threaten very often, but when they did fire a shot in on goal, Nuno Claro was usually there to stop them. The Portuguese goalkeeper is another who may be looking for a move in January and he did his chances no harm with this performance.


Crowd - 41,060
Yellow Cards - Mikel, Belletti (Chelsea) Trica, Culio (Cluj)
Red Cards - None
Chelsea -
Petr Cech 7, Jose Bosingwa 6, Ashley Cole 6, John Terry 6, Alex 6, John Obi Mikel 6 (Wayne Bridge 6, 88th), Deco 6, Michael Ballack 6, Salomon Kalou 6 (Didier Drogba 7, 65th), Joe Cole 6 (Juliano Belletti 6, 76th), Nicolas Anelka 6
FC Cluj -
Nuno Claro 8, Hugo Alcantara 7, Cadu 7, Alvaro Pereira 7, Cristian Panin 6, Gabriel Muresan 6, Dani 6, Yssouf Kone 7, Eugen Trica 6 (Sixto Peralto 6, 72nd), Emmanuel Culio 7, Sebastian Dubarbier 7 (Emmanuel Kone 6, 60th)
Just to add to this, in the Guardian football podcast from midweek, Rafael Hoenigstein (God knows if that's spelt right) makes a fairly compelling argument defending the Champions League.

The gist of it is that money in football rather than the Champions League itself is the real problem and the competition is almost bound to be offering money because the demand to watch it is there.

He also comments on the needlessness of the games due to the league structure which really caught my attention. The point of the group stages is clearly to ensure that the best teams progress to the latter stages and this can easily be misinterpreted as protecting the best interests of the regulars. My view had been that this is unfair and every team should be given an even chance of getting anywhere with the possibility of any team playing any team. This is fine for the FA Cup.

However, as he points, the Champions League is an elite competition trying to give one team the right to call themselves the best in Europe. The group stage isn't designed to give more points to the better teams, it's simply to allow the best team in the group to progress by proving themselves over 6 games. Naturally the better team will win more games and most of the time this team will be seeded.

I think the main part of his point is, why would anyone, in an elite competition to find the best team on merit, want to increase the element of chance in to it? Is their responsibility to potentially knock half of the 8 best teams in the competition out in the first round?

For all the beauty of the FA Cup's system, Cardiff's progression to the final only encountered, I believe, one Premiership team and not a good one at that while Barnsely had to slay two of Europe's heavyweights before their charge ran out of steam. I don't think you could ever claim that the FA cup produces the winner as the best team in the country but this is always what the Champions League has set out to do.

As I say, I was and still am quite cynical of the Champions League but if you're having a serious competition, I can see an argument for requiring the second tier of teams to prove that they belong in the higher one and this is something they can prove at the moment.