Club Focus – Chelsea – First step to Wembley negotiated as Blues open with win

Chelsea opened up their Champions League campaign with an impressive victory away to Slovakian champions MSK Zilina, cruising to a 4-1 win as they took what they will hope is their first step towards a European final at Wembley in May. Carlo Ancelotti took the unusual decision of announcing his starting line-up 24 hours prior to kickoff, yet given this preparation the Slovaks were no match for the English champions, who breezed to a three-goal lead before half-time on a sodden night at the Pod Dubnom Stadium. In the absence of Ashley Cole, rested in favour of Yuri Zhirkov, Frank Lampard, given further recovery time after his hernia operation, and the suspended Didier Drogba the Blues showed no desire of resting the shooting boots that have seen them hit 17 goals in four league games. Following a bright start by the hosts Michael Essien, fresh from his two goals in the 3-1 win at West Ham on Saturday, opened the scoring after just 12 minutes as he swept home Nicolas Anelka’s cut-back cross.

The French striker then took to finding the net himself as he burst through the middle to collect Florent Malouda’s lofted pass and classily beat Martin Dubravaka in the Zilina goal. The lead was extended just four minutes later as Anelka was on hand to stab home from two yards out after John Terry met Malouda’s inswinging corner with a header that Dubravaka could only touch onto the crossbar. Three points assured before half-time, Chelsea eased the pressure, almost taking pity on their star-struck opponents. That said, they still saved the best for last as their fourth and final goal was the most impressive of the game. Yossi Benayoun carried the ball over the halfway line and produced a sublime ball for youngster Daniel Sturridge, who composed himself and rounded the charging goalkeeper to slide into an unguarded net. The only minor blot for the Premier League champions would be the poor defending that saw Zilina’s effort rewarded with a consolation, as Petr Cech failed to gather a hopeful cross into the box and Branislav Ivanovic was the unfortunate defender in the wrong place at the wrong time as the ball ricocheted off him and into the net. UEFA officials gave the goal generously to Zilina’s Tomas Ovarec, who slid in to touch the ball in about an inch from the goal-line.

The travelling Chelsea fans were then treated to a potential glimpse of some of their future stars as Gael Kakuta, 17-year-old Josh McEachran and Patrick Van Aanholt made appearances from the substitute bench in the second half. With the eager –to-impress Sturridge excelling up front alongside Anelka with a nicely taken goal and good all round play, and the young talent that Ancelotti promised to give opportunities to throughout the season already being given the chance to display their ability, the future at Stamford Bridge could continue to be as fruitful as the recent past. Next week’s Carling Cup tie against Newcastle may be an opportunity for Ancelotti to introduce these young players to the high level they will be expected to compete at as they link up with the first team squad and attempt to make an impression on the established stars at the Chelsea.

The Blues’ next match pits them against the Premier League’s surprise package as Ian Holloway’s Blackpool come to Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon. The newly-promoted side got off to a dream start with a 4-0 triumph at Wigan Athletic on the opening day before being brought back down to earth with a bump in a 6-0 thrashing at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. A late equaliser denied them all three points in their first home match against Fulham, but the Tangerines responded with another victory on the road, a 2-0 win at Newcastle last Saturday. Currently fourth in the Premier League table it would be unfair to completely dismiss the visitors’ hopes, given their impressive start to life in the top flight, yet it would take an incredible effort to deny table-topping Chelsea a tenth consecutive triumph in all competitions, stretching back to the end of their Double-winning campaign last season.

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