Rafael Benítez fires his neutralising gun; Ashley Cole gives a full-back masterclass; no hiding place for Fernando Torres
Ever since Rafael Benítez was parachuted into Chelsea on a rescue mission, there have been allegations from some resolutely hostile Stamford Bridge regulars that he cares more about reviving his own career than saving the club's season. Those targets should be closely entwined, of course, but the suspicion was that when push came to shove, and the manager had to choose whether to assign more importance to Champions League qualification or the pursuit of trophies, he would go for the silverware to polish his own CV. Here he showed an ability to balance both aims, resting Juan Mata and Oscar for Sunday's Premier League game while deploying a lineup well capable of neutralising Basel's strengths yet retaining an attacking initiative. The team's shape and personnel were right from the start and so was the intensity, allowing Chelsea to make an authoritative start against a team who are normally dominant at home. This was Chelsea's best European away display of the season.
Following the Premier League can make you seem slightly seedy, as it begets an acquisitiveness akin to that of wealthy old lechers lurking in trendy bars. As soon as you see an attractive player at a foreign club, you imagine them being lured back to your place with a big fat wad. Mohamed Salah has stirred such thoughts throughout this tournament, in which he is the leading assist provider, but this time Ashley Cole kept the 20-year-old out of our gaze. Despite missing more than three weeks with a hamstring injury, Cole subdued Salah superbly, never letting the Egyptian dribble past him and, memorably in the first half, intervening to block a Salah shot after Valentin Stocker dashed past Branislav Ivanovic and teed up his team-mate. Cole will miss the return leg after being booked but he remains first class and performances against him are the benchmark by which all would-be top wingers must be judged.
To pick Mikel John Obi in central midfield rather than David Luiz is to strive for mediocrity. It is never admirable but is sometimes understandable, as the Brazilian has a skittish side that sporadically unhinges his team. Still, he brings so much more positivity and enterprise to Chelsea's midfield that Benítez deserves acclaim for coming up with the plan a few months ago and should be encouraged to use it more often. Performances such as this one in which he scored the injury-time winner should help that cause, as David Luiz provided a sturdy platform for he and his team to thrive on. He showcased a range of passing that the one-dimensional Mikel seldom even alludes to and more defensive fortitude than Ramires, who, nonetheless, did a far superior job shoring up the right flank than either Mata, Oscar or Eden Hazard would have done.
Hazard is blessed with wonderful skill but at times this season he has exerted little influence on games. That is perhaps inevitable for a 22-year-old playing his maiden season with a new club but has been frustrating nonetheless. Against Basel he was given the role of primary playmaker and he excelled, eliminating defenders with darting runs and astute passes or shrugging them off with his remarkable strength. This is no meek youth, this is a player who revels in responsibility. Giving him more could help get more out of him.
Dynamic closing down is the last resort of the broken striker. Fernando Torres has had to earn plaudits for his work rate rather than his strike rate since his ill-fated move to Chelsea and, although he has hinted at becoming properly dangerous again in recent weeks, he would dearly loved to have scored a goal against Basel to bolster his brittle confidence in a week in which Chelsea have been linked with a summer move for Radamel Falcao. Hazard presented him with a prime opportunity to do just that early in the second half but, after a barnstorming run by the Belgian, Torres struck the frame of the goal. Close, but still not good enough.