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Dec 6, 2012

Too little too late for Chelsea

Never have so many goals mattered so little. At the least, not on the night or in this competition.

As was widely enough expected, Shakhtar Donetsk failed to defeat Juventus, meaning Chelsea have become the first defending champions to go out in the European Cup opening round since Nottingham Forest in 1980-81 - just the sixth team of all time.

In terms of the rest of the season, though, it is possible that such an onslaught may have a little more significance. It certainly did for Rafa Benitez, who has claimed a first win as Chelsea manager, while the club itself saw their first in six. With such a weight lifted, there is the feeling that his work can now properly begin; that there is a platform other than pessimism and an atrociously poor run of form.

In essence, this early elimination also seemed to close the most extreme and idiosyncratic seven months in the club's entire history. Benitez has come out of it just about standing, though, and is now determined to "maintain focus".

"It's always important to win," the Spaniard said afterwards. "But, more than just the win was the way we won: with character, attitude, intensity; everything you are looking for. I am really pleased for the players, the club, the fans, for me."

And, of course, for one player in particular. Because, added to that weight being lifted, a wait came to an end: Fernando Torres scored for the first time in 11 hours and then added a second for a first brace in seven months. Benitez said he hoped it could be a "springboard" for the striker.

"He showed his desire today, his quality and, if he plays at this level, he can score more."

The one caveat is that we've been here before with Torres, not least after his hat-trick against QPR in April. And it kind of summed up Chelsea's night as well as the striker's Stamford Bridge career that, just as he put in his second and the team's fourth against Nordsjaelland, Juventus were celebrating the goal in Ukraine that rendered it all irrelevant.

Because, as much as Chelsea may take heart from such a high scoring win, the fact they have finally definitively fallen out of the Champions League so early will now properly sink in.

Although the result away to Juventus and all the recent drama someway readied them for this, the reality of it all can still be stark, as was reflected in the odd periods of silence that punctuated this game - as well as the usual boos and chants for Roberto Di Matteo.

All Benitez could offer in response was platitudes and a promise to try and win the Europa League.

"The other game was out of our hands," Benitez simply stated. "Can we change the result of the other game? No. Can we change the situation? No. We just try to improve and be ready for the next challenge.

"You have to think of the positives."

That, to be fair, is exactly what Benitez was trying to do.

"I say before we have to do our job. I think that, as a manager, you have to be really pleased with the performance of the team.

"They [the players] knew we had to win and, for me, the reflection they knew was the performance on the pitch. They took this responsibility and played really well. We had 32 attempts, 18 on target, six goals, lots of clear chances."

It wasn't just the numbers, though - especially given the openness of the game and the poverty of the opposition. It was the nature.

In attack, almost everything Chelsea would have wanted to come off did. Even beyond Torres scoring, there was the manner in which Juan Mata ran the show, the way that Eden Hazard found a bit of form again and the general cohesion of their play.

A fluency that the team hasn't seen for some time was evident as early as the 11th minute when all of Torres, Mata, Hazard and Ramires - with a superb step-over - combined for a brilliant move.

There was soon a reminder of the slightly farcical nature of this match, though, when the teams exchanged a series of quickfire handballs in their own boxes to provide three penalties in six minutes. Although Nicolai Stockholm and Hazard missed the first, David Luiz powered home the third to set the platform for a pummelling.

Torres got that long-awaited goal just before half-time and, although Joshua John scored immediately after it, Gary Cahill soon powered in a header before Torres got his second, Mata notched a richly-deserved strike and substitute Oscar stroked home another.

The ultimate question, of course, is how much all of this was down to the specific context of the match.

At the least, though, Benitez no longer has to provide any awkwardly-phrased answers about finally getting that first win. Whether that truly matters in the long run, we can only wait and see.

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