On paper, it's not a bad quagmire to be in: play in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on Monday, compete in Europe in mid-week and then a cushy home tie in the league on Sunday. Except, of course, the reality isn't quite as black and white as all that. The FA Cup quarter final was a replay, and not only that, but against Manchester United, who currently top the league by 15 points. The game in Europe wasn't the glittering spectacle of the Champions League but the Europa League, against Rubin Kazan, who bought about 12 fans to London. And the game in the league was against Sunderland, who were sure to put in a workmanlike performance under the watchful eyes of their newly-appointed gaffer Paolo Di Canio. The latter game was one which Chelsea were playing catch up to Arsenal, who won impressively the day before at West Bromwich Albion. So, when I put it like that, it was a daunting three games rather than exciting, but the Chelsea players that were involved in them did very well; the west London club escaped a difficult fixture pile-up with three fabulous wins.
The best win of the three was the first. As suspected by Chelsea fans, Benitez had indeed gambled with Chelsea's league game against Saints by fielding a weak team; the side that faced United in the FA Cup replay was Chelsea's strongest. It was also one of Chelsea's finest wins under Benitez. Although the Spaniard will reflect upon it was some considerable satisfaction, it was not his tactics that commandeered the win, but two moments of individual brilliance from Chelsea players. Firstly, Juan Mata's crystal clear path to find Demba Ba, who evaded Rio Ferdinand to score with his shoulder. And secondly, even more fantastically, was Petr Cech's save from Javier Hernandez. The Mexican's header seem destined for the net, and Cech had already committed himself in the opposite direction, but somehow, he stretched every sinew of his left glove to palm it over the bar. That football journalists, who travel across the country to watch the beautiful game, hailed Cech's effort as Save of the Season - says it all.
Cech was unable to repeat his heroics in goal against Rubin Kazan on Thursday, when the referee awarded a harsh penalty for a John Terry handball - the Chelsea captain's arm never left his side - and it was promptly scored. Chelsea, nonetheless, were able to dispatch of the Russian side relatively comfortably by scoring three goals of their own, including a sumptuous volley from Moses as well as a less-bad-than-usual performance from Yossi Benayoun. I attended this game, complete in a lime green tracksuit for the YOLO (although I am in my twenties, I still have the mindset of an immature teen) and although I had a university interview the next day that I was both hungover and had a sore throat for and it was bitterly cold at the Bridge, it was all worth it to witness an all-to-rare entity: a Fernando Torres brace.
Torres sustained this good form on Sunday. On as a half-time substitute against Sunderland, he effectively changed the game for Chelsea. The home team had, at that point, been trailing: an Adam Johnson corner was flicked on by John O'Shea and misfortune (and Cesar Azpilicueta) struck to create a Chelsea own goal. In keeping with the comedy of errors of the game, Chelsea's equaliser was also an own goal: Torres' pass for Oscar baffled Sunderland so that it was palmed by the goalkeeper onto his own defender Kilgallon, who then directed it into his own goal. This Sunderland bad luck continued for the Chelsea winner, where a powerful David Luiz shot fortuitously found his centre-back partner Branislav Ivanovic en route to the goal.
As far as three points go, it was anything but beautiful, but Chelsea fans won't give a flying monkey's. That win, and Tottenham's home draw to Everton, elevated Chelsea from fifth to third in the premier league table, and still with a game in hand. There will be much more gruelling encounters to come than Sunderland - Di Canio remarked in the post-match presser that he wasn't endowed with the fittest squad - including away ties at Old Trafford and Anfield. Chelsea will have to play much better then if they hope to get any kind of result from those grounds, but as Sam Allardyce's industrious West Ham, who escaped Anfield with a point yesterday, illustrated, it's certainly not impossible.
In between premier league, FA Cup and Europa League games, some Chelsea players were also involved in a kit launch promo that involved them being covered in blue paint. One wonders where players are finding time to sleep in such a hectic schedule, but respite won't arrive just yet: Chelsea must continue to put on a strong challenges on various fronts this week in their return leg in Russia against Kazan, before taking on Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Chelsea have somewhat of a love affair with the new Wembley, having won more games there than anyone else. Given the lacklustre performance they mustered at the Etihad in the league weeks ago, I can only hope that Chelsea's ~Wembley Sparkle~ sees them through against Mancini's men. The players will need to draw on their stores of energy and adrenaline to see them through a busy, stamina-testing climax to the season.