Chelsea back in the comfort zone
Three defeats in a week for Chelsea would have been bordering on the unthinkable. And this was no evening of improbability. The gulf between the champions of England and France is too broad to allow that.
Marseille are led by a familiar but perhaps not so welcome figure in Didier Deschamps, who spent an indifferent season playing at Stamford Bridge at the turn of this century and then masterminded one of Chelsea's many heartbreaks in this competition when leading AS Monaco to a thrilling semi-final win here in the spring of 2004. He was to be no such bete noire on this visit.
This was a night to forget for the man who captained OM to winning this competition in 1993, albeit in disputed circumstances that have haunted the club right until Deschamps last summer led them to their first title since that famous era. Despite some promising flourishes, and a creditable second-half performance, they were bested by a Chelsea team for whom this stage of the competition has been completed routinely in each of the seven seasons that Roman Abramovich has owned the club. "We were far inferior to Chelsea," admitted Deschamps. "But I am neither resigned or angry. I am just realistic."
Florent Malouda, booed by the Marseille contingent for his association with Lyon and also for his part in the French national team's insurrectional summer, is in his best form as a Chelsea player, even allowing for an exemplary campaign in 2009-10. He was given the unfamiliar role of a left-sided fantasista, playing off Anelka as the lesser-spotted Yuri Zhirkov adopted the left midfield role.
John Terry's early tap-in, and Nicolas Anelka's two-step-and-place-penalty, awarded for an unfortunate handball by Stephane M'Bia, put Chelsea on a King's Road stroll by the half-hour mark. Didier Drogba, undergoing his regular group-stage ban and thus only able to get on the pitch at half-time, would have liked to play against the former club where his heart is still said to lie, but he was not missed here. Despite OM's occasional flashes of threat and no little possession, Chelsea's goals came at opportune times that killed Marseillaise hopes. Anelka, for his leading role in l'affaire Francais, was especially targeted by Marseille's Ultras, but took the penalty with no little sang froid.
The calmness of his spot-kicking will not meet the umbrage of his manager while he's still scoring, no matter what the technique or level of barracking he may receive. "I've never seen Anelka afraid, or scared or nervous," said Carlo Ancelotti. "He has a good character."
The French off-season saw Marseille sign two much-sought strikers in Andre-Pierre Gignac and Loic Remy. Chelsea old hands John Terry and Alex saw to it that both were unable to make an impact, with Gignac substituted. Remy was kept quiet in a manner markedly similar to the fashion in which his agent turned him into a ventriloquist's dummy while on the summer whistle-stop tour of Premier League suitors that eventually ended with him deciding to stay in France. The likes of Stoke, West Ham and Liverpool will have seen little here to engender feelings of much regret.
There has been talk of a new Chelsea, one no longer charged by free-spending and Ancelotti's pre-match backing of youth was borne out by his selection of Gael Kakuta. The young Frenchman is still yet to show off a talent to match the depth of the farrago that his arrival at Stamford Bridge once brought. He will need to do more to be remembered as a footballer rather than as a legal matter. An ineffectual night ended on the hour, with Ramires, another young man with something to prove - with added pressure of a price tag and lengthy pursuit of his talents - replacing him.
Ancelotti was not for criticising what he felt was a disciplined performance from Kakuta. "He played for the team. Young players often want to show off their abilities and quality but he played for the team," said the manager. "I congratulate him for the performance."
The Chelsea bench was another view to the future. Take out perennial Paulo Ferreira, and Ramires, and the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Patrick Van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma and Josh McEachran are the youth product that Abramovich is said to be demanding the bearing of fruit from in the near future.
But they will have to wait their turn. There is to be no wholesale blooding of kids in the fashion of Alex Ferguson in the summer of 1995 or the Arsene Wenger of the present day. The over-30s club is doing just fine, and the new brood's role is currently complementary. McEachran is perhaps the young star with most expected of him. Indeed, debates are already opening up as to how England shall fit in both he and Arsenal's Jack Wilshere, as both share the obvious facets of a left-footed playmaker.
McEachran's appearance was brief, arriving with barely five minutes to play yet Ancelotti's blooding of him here, to follow sub appearances at Eastlands at the weekend and against Newcastle in the Carling Cup, shows that the Italian wishes to slowly coax the 17-year-old into comfort on the grand occasions.
In the meantime, the engine of this team is Michael Essien, very much missed last year despite those successes. The Ghanaian rattled the crossbar in the 76th minute, and drilled wide late on, to continue his regular routine of hotshot shooting. The attacking power - to match that thunderous tackling - he can add to his team will be needed on more testing days than this, as Chelsea dream of changing their bittersweet relationship with this competition by finally lifting the trophy in London at Wembley.
Such an eventuality lies eight months away, but Chelsea will be in the knock-out rounds with little trouble on this evidence and Ancelotti was happy to label their opening two matches as a "good start". The genuine challenges will begin in February at the rejoining of the second round.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Florent Malouda
No goal for him here, and that almost feels a rarity in the imperial form he is currently in. An admiring Didier Deschamps put it thus: "Florent is in a great form at the moment, and he finds space between the two lines of midfield and attack. He worked really well in tandem with Ashley Cole down the left."
CHELSEA VERDICT: There was to be no blip in this competition. This was a strong performance that swiftly blew away their opponents and was played out with an air of some comfort. It is difficult to see beyond two more home wins in Group F and that may add a chance to give those kids more playing time.
MARSEILLE VERDICT: They have been left with little leeway in their search for qualification and Deschamps admitted as much in post-match. Indifferent form in the French league season was followed by a catastrophic start here and their coach took little consolation from a better second-half showing.