Rafa Benitez defends misfiring Fernando Torres after Eden Hazard saves Chelsea's skin
Chelsea 1 Sparta Prague 1 (Chelsea win 2-1 on aggregate)
In the competition they never wanted to be part of, jeering the manager they never wanted at the club and despairing at the £50m centre-forward who almost never scores, so Chelsea progressed thanks to Eden Hazard’s 92nd minute goal.
The question is: do they even want to be in the last 16 of the Europa League, with a tie against Steaua Bucharest who beat Ajax on penalties last night? At times you saw the very worst of Chelsea's season, with Rafa Benitez barracked by his own fans and, above all, Fernando Torres woeful in front of goal.
It should have been a night that was dominated by Hazard whose first season as a £32m player at Chelsea has not quite worked out as he would have wished, but inevitably you could not help but wonder at Torres' latest collections of misses, stumbles and general hangdog disposition.
Since 23 December, Torres has scored just once – against Brentford in the FA Cup, and last night in a competition that Chelsea once considered well beneath them, he looked far from the dominant striker you might expect slumming it in less celebrated company.
Once again, Benitez was forced to defend his player and once again he did so with the kind of certainty that is baffling to those who have watched Torres' struggles. "If he continues working like [last night] and playing like he did [last night], he will score goals," Benitez said. "I'm convinced about that."
Earlier he had trotted out the familiar excuses. "We could be talking about Fernando not scoring goals, and he had four chances. But he had four chances. Let's turn it into a positive. I've seen him in games not having these chances because he's not in the right position. The goalkeeper stopped him and he missed some, but he did a good job for the team, was in the right position.
"It wasn't the situation where the striker disappeared. He was in the right place at the right time. Are we disappointed he didn't score? Yes, we are. But he was still giving his all to the team."
If that really is Torres' best then heaven help him. He does not miss chances by much but the fact is that he misses them and the longer that goes on, the more pressing the need for Chelsea to sign his replacement this summer. With no Demba Ba on the bench last night, Benitez had no option but to leave Torres on.
There were boos for the Chelsea interim manager when he brought off Oscar on 67 minutes for Hazard. Not at the introduction of Hazard but for the inevitable substitution of Oscar, who had played well, rather than the less effective Victor Moses or even Torres. That spilled over into a familiar chorus of "You don't know what you're doing" and some of the old tension returned.
Benitez was rewarded with a goal from Hazard, his 10th of a season that has had its ups and downs. "It was not easy to pick anyone to come off," he said. "We decided on Oscar because Victor could give us width on the right and Hazard on the left. They were playing deep, so we wanted to stretch them. Hazard has quality and could make the difference in the end."
Before Hazard's goal the game was going to extra-time which would have been very unhelpful given Sunday's game against Manchester City. Chelsea looked for inspiration from Oscar and Juan Mata and they were attacking relentlessly by the end against a robust Sparta who, 1-0 up, still looked dangerous on the counter-attack.
A goal on 17 minutes from the Sparta striker David Lafata had lifted his side and given them that glimmer of hope. Chelsea spent the rest of the game chasing that deficit.
Torres' first chance came on just four minutes when Moses cut the ball back to him and the Chelsea striker hit his shot close enough to goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik for him to save. He had an even better chance on 11 minutes when Mata's cross from the right just needed gently guiding into the Sparta goal from close range but Torres just could not manage it.
In those opening stages Chelsea had full control of the game and despite a healthy crowd there was not the high levels of anti-Benitez tension. Then the Sparta goal came and the mood changed to one of quiet despair.
It was well-worked by Sparta who got a ball inside the right-back Cesar Azpilicueta which Vaclav Kadlec retrieved and cut back to Lafata to score. After that the away side rallied and Petr Cech was obliged to save from Tomas Prikryl. In a midfield without Frank Lampard, a lot of the creative burden fell upon Oscar. Down the left, with Ashley Cole on the bench, Chelsea looked exposed,
Nevertheless, they should have scored from Mata's volley into the ground which Vaclik did well to save. Then, in the final moments of the first half a cross from John Obi Mikel reached Torres in the box and, although the header was not simple, it was a chance. It went over.
It got little better for Torres after half-time. He seemed to take away the ball from Ramires in one misunderstanding and later got in the way of a good shot from the same team-mate. There was one excellent feint and burst of acceleration from Torres away from the Sparta defence but bearing down on goal he tried to chip Vaclik, with predictable results.
The late intervention from Hazard came so late that Sparta only had time to kick-off before the Macedonian referee blew for full-time. Benitez survives, but for his gloomy centre-forward, nothing seems to get better.
Man of the match Oscar.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee A Stavrev (Mac).
Round of 16 draw details
Viktoria Plzen v Fenerbahce
Benfica v Bordeaux
Anzhi Makhachkala v Newcastle Utd
Stuttgart v Lazio
Tottenham v Internazionale
Levante v Rubin Kazan
Basle v Zenit St Petersburg
Steaua Bucharest v Chelsea
Ties to take place 7 and 14 March
Belfast Telegraph Digital