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Spratt on Europa: Masked man Torres leaves his mark

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Spratt on Europa: Masked man Torres leaves his mark

Playing their third match in six days, Chelsea made a statement on Thursday that they are serious about their pursuit of the Europa League. The confounding Fernando Torres scored two goals to help his Jekyll-and-Hyde Chelsea squad over Russian side Rubin Kazan 3-1 in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final tie at Stamford Bridge.

After dropping three points to Premier League also-rans Southampton last weekend, Chelsea responded to beat league leaders Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-finals earlier this week. Coming off their Champions League triumph in 2012, it’s been that kind of season for Blues supporters, where it seems that the team mantra could be \”expect the unexpected.\”

Appropriate then that the unpredictable Torres, his face adorned like a certain swashbuckling hero, would ride in to carry the Blues on this day. Torres, wearing a Zorro-like mask to protect his recently-broken nose, had his most effective appearance in months, notching two goals, threatening several other times, and generally playing as he did a couple years back, when Chelsea misguidedly threw £50 million at Liverpool for his services.

Kazan out of their league?

Chelsea controlled the pace of the match in the early minutes, which started out pretty flat. Meanwhile, Kazan looked a bit out of their depth at Stamford Bridge, surprising for the highly regarded Russian side. Kazan failed to show much attacking instinct against a patient Blues defensive group, and few players — aside from Kazan’s box-to-box midfielder Bibras Nathko – created much of a threat at all for the Russians.

But even in a domestic campaign in which they’ve struggled to score goals recently, Kazan has been getting by on its defence, conceding only 13 times in 22 matches. You wouldn’t know it by their display at Stamford Bridge, as Chelsea made Kazan’s defensive unit look pretty pedestrian. Juan Mata, Chelsea’s stalwart midfield playmaker, had an excellent match, pulling the strings and providing the creativity in attack. He and Torres, combined with strong outings from Yossi Benayoun and Victor Moses, offered the spark the Blues would need.

Chelsea opened the scoring in the 17th minute as fullback David Luiz floated a well-placed ball into the path of Torres in the six-yard box. The masked man fought off a defender and slid it past Kazan ‘keeper Sergei Ryzhikov in from his backside.

Torres was also involved in the buildup to Chelsea’s second goal, bringing down a deflected ball, sliding it over to Mata. Mata fed back to Moses, who buried a top-shelf shot from the edge of the 18-yard-box.

Kazan pulled one back in the 41st minute, as a shot hit Chelsea defender John Terry’s arm in the penalty area. Nathko stepped up and coolly converted the spot kick.

But Mata and Torres proved too much for Kazan, with Mata lacing a beautiful cross into the box in the 70th minute which Torres headed home nicely for his brace. The marker gave him six on the European campaign, where he seems to have saved most of his best performances for.

Looking ahead

For Rubin Kazan, the result will sting, but is certainly not insurmountable. However, the return leg, on April 11, will be played in Moscow rather than Kazan, a good 800 kilometres from their home. A 2-0 result would see them through to the next round, but one wonders how many Kazan supporters will be able to make the long journey to the Russian capital, and whether that will negatively impact their home field advantage.

Meanwhile, Chelsea must be feeling quite comfortable at the moment. After having a nervous time of it in the last round — down to Steaua Bucharest 1-0 after the first leg, before handily winning the return leg — Chelsea seems to have settled in to the Europa League, and look like as good a contender as any to win the tournament.

Whether it’s the quality of competition or a desire to make something out of another unsatisfying domestic season, it must be said that the Blues have put together a nice run of results in Europe since dropping out of the Champions League.

And for this mercurial Chelsea squad, a strong finish to the Europa League — combined with the potential of an FA Cup victory — would provide some measure of consolation to Blues fans desperate for the Chelsea they believe in to emerge for good.

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Southampton vs Inter Milan Prediction & Betting Tip

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