Europa Cup: Steaua Bucharest edge out Chelsea in first leg
Romania: Chelsea fell to an uninspiring 1-0 defeat at Steaua Bucharest in the first leg of their last-16 Europa League tie on Thursday night.
In the first-ever meeting between the two sides, Raul Rucescu scored the winner as he converted a first-half penalty after being brought down by Ryan Bertrand.
The visitors offered very little in response and go into the second leg at Stamford Bridge knowing the tie is still finely poised, though their dour performance will hardly leave them brimming with confidence.
Benitez made five changes from the Blues` 1-0 win over West Brom on Saturday, with skipper John Terry, Yossi Benayoun, Bertrand and John Obi Mikel all starting, while Fernando Torres was selected to lead the line.
The hosts, meanwhile, kept Cristian Tanase in the starting line-up despite his sending-off during their win over Gaz Metan, although striker Stefan Nikolic missed out with a knee injury.
A tentative opening period saw the visitors sit back and soak up what Steaua had to offer, with an initially subdued atmosphere hardly providing either side with encouragement early on.
The first moment of inspiration came on the quarter of an hour mark when Torres showed skill and determination to beat the home left-back. Nothing came of it as his follow-up sent the ball out of play – but at least it was a glimpse of the Spaniard of old.
Torres was at it again 15 minutes later, pressuring the Steaua defence to win a corner – but it was duly wasted.
There was simply no dynamism in Chelsea`s play. After the highs of last May`s Champions League victory, no-one would blame those present in Munich for asking if this was the same club as the one that lifted Europe`s top prize.
And it got worse for the Blues just past the half-hour as Bertrand conceded a penalty, fouling Rucescu inside the box. The decision was debatable but the referee`s word was final and the left-back saw yellow.
Rucescu took the spot kick – and how. Showing no hesitation, the Romanian slammed the ball past Petr Cech straight into the bottom left corner.
Chelsea hit back as Benayoun forced a save from Ciprian Tatarusanu on 40 minutes but it said a lot that it was their first meaningful shot on goal of the encounter.
It was more of the same after the break. The hosts held the ball well and, aside from the odd surging run from Eden Hazard, the visitors were non-existent.
On 63 minutes, Frank Lampard dinked a pass through to Torres in an attempt to create something but it was to no avail. Benitez knew that there was only one man who could inject the required spark: Juan Mata. He duly came on for his 47th appearance of the season.
But the Spaniard`s introduction changed little. Hazard flashed a volley over after 73 minutes, while Marko Marin came close at the near post 10 minutes later, yet the hosts held on to secure their 17th win in 19 home games this season.