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Mar 14, 2013

Stumbling Chelsea march on

It wasn't exactly with a minimum of fuss but, at the same time, Steaua Bucharest never really pushed Chelsea to the maximum either.

That, however, is pretty much the story of the Stamford Bridge side's time under Rafa Benitez. Just when they look set to properly convince, they suffer a collapse; just when they're about to enter a full-blown crisis, they provide a response.

In their 3-1 win over Steaua on Thursday night, Fernando Torres effectively personified this. Having ended his latest drought with a superbly taken goal to ultimately decide the tie, the Spaniard then missed the penalty that would have put it beyond doubt.

Instead, Chelsea had to suffer a few more minutes of uncertainty and, as a consequence, Torres will himself probably have to suffer a few more months' uncertainty.

After the game, Benitez was asked why he was allowed take the penalty given Juan Mata usually hits them in Frank Lampard's absence. The Stamford Bridge boss, however, said that he was pleased Torres was assuming responsibility.

"We have three [takers], he was one of them. It depends how they feel." That, however, may be the point.

It was a particularly pity for Torres given the perseverance he illustrated throughout, as well as occasional moments of pure quality, but in the end it seemed he pushed too a little far and tried to surf an apparent wave of confidence a bit too much.

The truth of the tie, though, is that the miss didn't feel that consequential either. And that was because Steaua had themselves pushed too far.

Despite an initially abrasive and intense performance that really had Chelsea rattled for long periods, the Romanian side ultimately ran out of energy.

Of course, that might not have mattered had they most of their early impetus. After just 12 minutes, Raul Rusescu could only bring a save from Petr Cech through a one-on-one. After 16, captain Alexandru Bourceanu shot wide.

Following the defeat, Steaua manager Laurentiu Reghecampf cited such a lack of precision as the ultimate reason they went out and stressed the importance of taking such chances "at this level".

Of course, the other side of it was that Chelsea showed them how. Despite having been shackled, shuttled wide and often shaken with some aggressive tackles for the first half an hour, the home side got their initial equaliser through a typical moment of joyous Juan Mata technique.

Taking the ball in his stride, he swivelled past a Steaua defender before exchanging passes with Ramires and just about getting the ball past Ciprian Tatarasanu.

Just as typically, though, Chelsea weren't past danger. This, seemingly, is a team that can't quite doing things easily at the moment. Because, on the stroke of half-time, Steaua took advantage of some awfully slack set-piece defending as Vlad Chiriches powered the ball into the roof of the net from close-range.

At that point, a familiar agitation seemed to be descending on the stadium. Within the dressing-room, though, Benitez claimed he kept calm.

"I told them to carry on because we did it before [in similar situations] against Leeds United and Nordsjaelland. We had a lot of confidence and as soon as we scored the goal we were back in the game with our confidence high."

There was, at least, no denying that - even if Chelsea needed to, quite literally, physically force it. After Eden Hazard had been brought down for a free-kick, David Luiz did a fine job unfairly obstructing a marker for his central defensive partner, John Terry, to plunder a free header.

From there, Chelsea seemed to have free rein. There was a greater creativity and fluidity to their play. And, as Steaua seemed to increasingly fade, the home side added more and more flourishes to their game.

Despite their previous difficulty, the classy manner of the clincher was no surprise. Juan Mata - of course - drove through, Hazard dummied inventively and Torres picked his spot.

Of course, it wouldn't be 2012-13 Chelsea without another sting in the tail. That came after Hazard was again felled. By then, though, Steaua were also down.

Benitez, however, must now keep his team up for what is looking an exceptionally demanding fixture list. In early April, they will have four games in nine days.

Every silver lining a cloud: the story of the season. At the least, though, they remain in contention for silverware.

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