Fernando Torres used to be associated with a good sense of timing and he chose his 100th start for Chelsea to score a vital two goals that now put them on a much smoother path to the last 16 of the Champions League.
Manager Jose Mourinho may have his grudges towards Cardiff City and perhaps the Football Association after being charged with improper conduct, but he can have no complaints about his team’s form or the way Torres is now playing. In fact this is just the kind of result to improve his mood, as the opening defeat to Basel becomes a distant memory with successive away victories lifting them to the top of Group E.
Despite Torres being something of an enigma since he joined Chelsea for a British record £50m from Liverpool in 2011, something certainly seems to happen to him the moment he gets on a plane to participate on the continent. The Spaniard’s nerves evaporate and the prolific marksmen returns.
There was nothing special about his strike which put Chelsea in front inside five minutes, calmly steering the ball in at the far post after Branislav Ivanovic flicked on Frank Lampard’s corner at the near post. What was so extraordinary is that he now boasts a remarkable record of scoring seven goals in his last eight European games for Chelsea.
Torres was very much the hero as Chelsea coasted past mediocre opposition last term to claim the Europa League, netting six times, including in the final against Benfica.
In contrast, his record in England’s top division continues to be woeful, with one solitary effort to his name in the past 10 months, however Chelsea won’t care if his midas touch can continue in Europe’s premier club competition.
He certainly provided an early justification for Mourinho’s decision to select him ahead of Samuel Eto’o, even though the Cameroonian who scored his first goal for the club at the weekend.
It was one of five changes Mourinho decided to make to his starting XI, including David Luiz, following Saturday’s gaffe against Cardiff, being dropped in favour of Gary Cahill, who was making his first start for Chelsea in four weeks.
Despite the rotation, Chelsea were quick to find their stride, although the early goal from Torres was always going to help ease the tension.
Schalke were sluggish in comparison, letting Chelsea have all the time and space they wanted in the opening quarter to dictate terms. They had already looked like generous hosts by allowing Chelsea to play in their blue home kit, which meant they had to switch to a jade number instead.
Perhaps it was the reason why Schalke keeper Timo Hildebrand cleared the ball in bizarre fashion straight to Frank Lampard in the eighth minute, but fortunately for him the England international fired a tame effort back at the empty net from 40 yards out and he had plenty of time to recover.
One of the more eagerly anticipated match-ups was on Chelsea’s right flank between two of Europe’s most exciting wingers, Eden Hazard and Julian Draxler. It looked a deliberate ploy by Mourinho to distract the thrilling Draxler by making him worry about Hazard running in the opposite direction. If so, it had the desired effect.
The Germany international showed only the odd flash of the skill that has led many of Europe’s top clubs to cast admiring glances in his direction. One sublime pass through to Dennis Aogo led to keeper Petr Cech being forced into a fine save, although the assistant referee flagged for offside anyway.
The incident still galvanised the home side, with Atsuto Uchida firing one shot over, while Cech was forced into two saves before the break from Kevin Prince Boateng and Roman Neustädter.
Ironically, given Mourinho’s rant about Cardiff’s time-wasting tactics, Chelsea suddenly seemed more than happy to take an age to restart the game from one throw-in and then a free-kick as they struggled to keep their lead intact until the break.
In many ways, Chelsea’s display was in keeping with much of their early season form, namely somehow winning a game without looking entirely convincing. The home side continued to show promise having bounced back from the psychological blow of conceding their first goal in the competition, but were still handicapped by the absence of main striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar due to a knee injury.
Boateng was leading the line instead and Torres certainly compared favourably to the former Tottenham and Portsmouth midfielder. Indeed, the 29-year-old was unfortunate not to double Chelsea’s lead six minutes after the restart when a fine header from Lampard’s free-kick rebounded off the crossbar. Chelsea certainly needed a second goal to kill the game off, yet they remained sloppy in possession and ensured Schalke remained firmly in the contest.
But Chelsea always had the resources to capitalise on the counter-attack and they finally secured the three points with a thrilling break 21 minutes from time. Eden Hazard, who outshone Draxler, charged from the edge of his own penalty area and Torres was able to double his tally after Oscar squared the ball to him in the area.
Hazard then got the goal his display deserved just before the end, slotting the ball into the far corner after Torres’s clever run opened up the Schalke defence for him.
“He scores when he wants”, the Chelsea fans chanted to Torres. Perhaps still not enough for the club’s liking but they will be happy enough if he keeps making the difference in Europe.