Chelsea reached their sixth Champions League semi-final in nine years and will face the might of Barcelona after victory against Benfica at Stamford Bridge. But for a few nerve-jangling minutes it looked like it would all go wrong in this quarter-final second leg game.
Having gone ahead with a 20th minute penalty, and with Benfica down to 10 men, Chelsea failed to kill off the game and were meandering towards a 1-0 win when Benfica levelled the game after 84 minutes.
Two minutes into stoppage time, and with the scores level, Benfica were awarded a free kick just outside the Chelsea penalty area and threatened a second goal, which would have eliminated the hosts. Everyone went forward for the visitors. The ball was floated in but headed away by John Mikel Obi. Raul Meireles drove forward – into the space vacated moments earlier by the Benfica defence – and rifled a shot from 20 yards into the roof of the net. Cue relief.
Benfica were more impressive than in the first leg in Lisbon, even after going down to 10 men, and they started the game with a high tempo, pinning Chelsea back in the opening minutes. The Blues’ first shot on target was the penalty, converted by Frank Lampard after Ashley Cole was clearly barged over. It was Lampard’s 22nd Champions League goal and put the home side 2-0 up on aggregate.
There were further attempts at both ends – and a clearance off the line by John Terry – before Benfica were reduced to 10 men. Full back Pereira, booked for dissent after the penalty award, raked his studs down Mikel’s leg and the referee had little option but to show him a second yellow card.
The second half began with a superb save by Petr Cech before Chelsea failed to convert any of a series of chances. First Ramires somehow managed to fail to fully connect with a low cross-shot by Salomon Kalou. Then Fernando Torres placed a shot inside the post, only for it to be deflected inches wide. Kalou headed wide, Mata had a shot well-saved by the visiting goalkeeper, Kalou was also denied by Artur, and then Mata shot wide. Against a team down to 10 men, and already missing both their first-choice central defenders, Chelsea’s forwards should have done better.
The Blues defence also began to look vulnerable once skipper John Terry was forced off after an hour due to injury. Cech saved well from a Benfica header but, from the resulting corner, Garcia was able to find space and was unchallenged as he glanced the ball into the top of the net with his head.
The nerves were jangling amongst Chelsea fans as Benfica sensed they could turn the game around with a second goal – which would have put them through on away goals. Nerves turned to near panic, and not just in the stands, when 4 minutes of time were added at the end. Things could have gone horribly wrong. Then Meireles lifted the tension.
The win sets up a repeat of the controversial semi-final in 2009 when, playing at home in the second leg and leading 1-0, Chelsea were harshly treated by the referee, who denied three clear penalty appeals before Iniesta scored in added time to level the scores and put Barcelona through on away goals.
But Chelsea will have to play far better than they did against Benfica if they are to trouble the superstars from Catalonia and reach next month’s final in Munich. As well as finding a way to stop Messi and co, they’ll need to convert any chances that come their way.