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Dec 11, 2013

Chelsea ease through with victory over Bucharest

Chelsea qualified for the knockout phase of this season's Champions League competition as winners of Group E with an underwhelming 1-0 victory over Steaua Bucharest.

With the Blues having taken the lead as early as the 10th minute when a Willian corner, flicked on by Oscar, was sliced by Steaua defender Daniel Georgievski, with Demba Ba challenging him and getting the final touch beyond keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu, their supporters were expectant that more goals would follow. But despite enjoying the lion's share of possession, racking up 14 corners to Steaua's one, having 18 shots on goal of which five were on target, Chelsea failed to extend their advantage and could have been pegged back on a number of occasions as the visitors rode their luck and chanced their arm at creating an upset.

- Delaney: Three Things - Chelsea vs. Steaua

Jose Mourinho's starting XI contained few surprises. The Blues manager, whilst mindful of the coming weekend's Premier League London derby clash with reinvigorated Crystal Palace, knew that there could be no room for the type of carelessness that has seen Chelsea slip up on several occasions this season, on both the European and domestic front, against teams which should have been comfortably beaten; the home and away Champions League defeats to FC Basel being the primary case in point.

Simply speaking, to ensure qualification from Group E as winners, Mourinho's men had to beat Steaua, who in playing at Stamford Bridge for pride if nothing else could potentially prove to be dangerous opponents. Defensive lapses of the type which have cost the Blues dearly in recent games were not on the agenda, and in restoring Ashley Cole to left-back on the Chelsea back line, with the excellent and under-utilized Mark Schwarzer under the bar, it was hoped there would be an element of poise and balance to Mourinho's rearguard.

Branislav Ivanovic continued at right-back as did John Terry in central defence, with a fit again David Luiz pairing up with the Blues' captain. The midfield engine room featured John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard, with fit again Brazilian duo Willian and Oscar joining Eden Hazard as the creative trio tasked with supplying the ammunition for Demba Ba -- Mourinho's striker of choice for the night -- to hopefully fire home.

Chelsea certainly started the match with a sense of spirited purpose; Hazard and Willian in particular marauded forward with intent and they could have already netted four times through Oscar, Frank Lampard and David Luiz twice before the scrappy opening goal that was surely a portent that Steaua's floodgates were about to open. But try as they might the Blues failed to press home their advantage, and the profligacy in front of goal that Mourinho has lamented in news conference after news conference this season shows no sign of abating.

In the first half, Ba contrived to balloon the ball over the bar from inside the six-yard box after being perfectly teed up by an inch-perfect low cross from Willian. In the second period, Hazard headed over a wide-open goal following excellent work by Andre Shurrle, who'd entered the fray in the 67th minute as a substitute for Oscar.

The record books will show that the London club prevailed and won the group, but a more detailed analysis of the performances that got Mourinho's team through to the next phase will reveal that the passage has been less than smooth and that the Blues' boss has much work to do between now and February when the Champions League resumes, especially if Chelsea are to be taken as serious contenders for the trophy.

Having said that, the glorious triumph of 2012 in Munich is still fresh in the memory and that came off the back of a run of performances that varied from being poor, through inconsistent, to quite remarkable.

When the draw for the last 16 is made in the Swiss city of Nyon next Monday, the Blues will find themselves paired with one of Bayer Leverkusen, Galatasaray, Olympiakos, Zenit St Petersburg or AC Milan. Whomever Chelsea are matched with, expect Mourinho to play down his side's chances ... but as the old saying goes, never kid a kidder, and in the Special One, the London club have the greatest kidder in town. Few will be as determined as the Portuguese to mastermind another journey to glory.