No matter what Rafael Benitez tries as Chelsea’s interim first-team manager, it always seem to backfire. Just a couple of days after the club’s chief executive, Ron Gourlay, warned him that finishing in the Premier League top four was a must, Benitez is on the verge of failing in another cup competition.
Raul Rosescu’s penalty was enough to give Steaua the advantage in the first leg of this last 16 Europa League tie last night and, unfortunately for Benitez, he had a hand in its outcome.
He actually picked a stronger team than many expected, especially with an FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at Old Trafford just three days away. However it was typical that one of the squad players he chose to play, Ryan Bertrand, ended up gifting Steaua the opening goal.
The home side had barely posed any threat when Iasmin Latovlevici crossed deep and Rusescu fell under the challenge of Bertrand, who was playing instead of Ashley Cole.
It appeared a harsh decision by referee Sergei Karasev Bertrand, but then the young English left-back had looked uncomfortable throughout playing next to David Luiz rather than John Terry. The latter started but was, unusually, fielded to the right of Luiz.
Rusescu, Steaua’s leading scorer this season, converted the spot-kick emphatically to spark delirious celebrations and uncomfortably loud dance music on the PA system. Afterwards, Benitez complained that the decision had been unjust and tried to remain upbeat about Chelsea’s chances of progressing. He said: “The mood in the dressing room is as you would expect after a defeat. We are disappointed, but we still have the belief we can do it at home.”
A clearly rattled Benitez can still point to one Spaniard having a more miserable time as Fernando Torres’ woes continued. He had been informed that his deflected effort at Middlesbrough last week had been taken away by the dubious goals panel and awarded to Ramires instead. So his record reverted to a miserable one goal in 17. The 28-year-old was soon back in the spotlight for the wrong reasons as just after he tripped to send the ball out of play, a green laser pen was aimed at him from the stands.
It was fitting that Chelsea were playing in a city like Bucharest, a confused mix of the old and the new, just like Benitez’s squad. Romania’s capital is renowned for potholes galore, making any travel rather bumpy. One could say the same applies to Chelsea’s season and the club’s fans are so disenchanted they decided to give this one a miss. Around 300 to 400 fans looked all the more lost in the impressive National Arena, opened in 2011 and boasting a capacity of more than 55,000.
Still few should blame them, especially when seeing the team play as ineffectively as this, albeit against a side full of confidence owing to their 12-point lead in Romania’s top flight.
Yossi Benayoun should have equalised when put through by Eden Hazard, but shot tamely for Ciprian Tatarusanu to tip it wide. Tatarusanu also blocked a half-volley from Torres and a late effort from Marko Marin, but Chelsea were poor as an attacking force.
They have a lot of improving to do at Stamford Bridge if they are to avoid the undistinguished record of being knocked out prematurely of a second European competition this term.
Still one English team will be happy with what they saw, as Manchester United lie in wait to make amends for their own European heartbreak.
“It’s another competition and atmosphere,” Benitez said. “Sunday is another challenge for us.” It is a challenge that Chelsea look very unlikely to overcome.
Booked: Steaua Bucharest Mihai Pintilii. Chelsea Bertrand, Mikel.
Man of the match Rusescu.
Match rating 5/10.
Possession: Steaua Bucharest 55%. Chelsea 45%.
Attempts on target: Steaua Bucharest 2. Chelsea 3. Referee S Karasev (Moscow).