17th September, 2015
Jose Mourinho’s selection gamble paid off as Chelsea got their spluttering season back on track with a 4-0 rout of Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Champions League on Wednesday.
Mourinho’s side went into their Group G opener in turmoil after Saturday’s dismal 3-1 defeat at Everton left them with only one win from their first five Premier League matches.
That miserable sequence was Chelsea’s worst start to a season since 1988 and it provoked a barrage of criticism for Mourinho and his under-performing English champions.
But Mourinho promised changes after the Everton loss and the Blues boss was true to his word as he axed John Terry, Diego Costa, Pedro Rodriguez, John Obi Mikel, Nemanja Matic and Branislav Ivanovic.
It seemed the switches might backfire after Eden Hazard’s shocking penalty miss in the first half at Stamford Bridge.
But lacklustre Maccabi were the perfect opponents for Chelsea to rediscover a semblance of their form and Willian opened the scoring before Oscar showed Hazard how to do it by converting a penalty on the stroke of half-time.
Costa came on to net in the second half and Cesc Fabregas added gloss to the scoreline with a late tap-in.
It was far from a vintage Chelsea performance, but Mourinho will hope it provides a foundation for future success, starting with a sterner test against Arsenal in the Premier League this weekend.
“It was a good victory, you could see from minute one we were going to win the game,” Mourinho said.
“The same way I was not in hell with bad results, I am not in heaven when we won a game.
“Missing the penalty was a good thing to test. The players have shown a good attitude.”
There was an early indication of Chelsea’s frustration at their recent predicament when Loic Remy and Willian, two of the players drafted in by Mourinho, combined to earn a fifth minute penalty.
Remy’s defence-splitting pass put Willian through on goal and the Brazilian winger was sent crashing to the turf by Maccabi goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic.
However, Mourinho still felt hard done by when German referee Felix Zwayer decided not to send off Rajkovic and he screamed in anger on the touchline when he saw the yellow card.
There was even worse to come as Belgium midfielder Hazard, showing a lack of composure that encapsulated his current struggles, blazed the penalty high over the crossbar.
– Fortunate escape –
It was a comically bad effort and could have shattered Chelsea’s already fragile morale.
Yet, crucially, Rajkovic’s fortunate escape turned into a bonus for Mourinho as Chelsea took the lead in the 15th minute when the keeper misjudged Willian’s inswinging free-kick and allowed it to curl past him untouched into the far corner.
A first goal of the season was as good as it got for Willian, who limped off in the 23rd minute to be replaced by Costa.
After such an uninspiring start from Maccabi, Chelsea were lulled into a false sense of security at the back and the Israelis should have equalised when Eran Zahavi was left unmarked from Nikola Mitrovic’s free-kick, but the forward’s tame header looped harmlessly over.
But the hosts doubled their lead four minutes into stoppage-time when former Chelsea defender Tal Ben Haim was ruled to have fouled Costa, even though he got a toe on the ball before tripping the Spain striker.
Brazil playmaker Oscar calmly sent Rajkovic the wrong way from the spot.
Mourinho had bristled when grilled on a perceived lack of success in his third year at his previous clubs, but his approval rating remains high at the Bridge and his name was loudly sung by Chelsea’s fans.
With their confidence returning, Chelsea’s most stylish flourish came in the 58th minute as Costa caressed a fine volley into the top corner from Fabregas’s cross.
Fabregas has been pilloried for his ineffective displays of late, so he will have welcomed that assist and the close-range finish that brought Chelsea their fourth goal in the 78th minute.