David Luiz and Juan Mata scored to reward an improved display by Chelsea
Preamble: A new manager, some new players and the same ambition: to be crowned champions of Europe. But despite the recent arrivals Chelsea seem farther from realising that dream than at any time since Roman Abramovich turned them into a European force. They've been to five of the last six Champions League semi-finals but given their persistent weakness and the strength of some of their rivals, even going that far this year seems beyond them. Andre Villas-Boas worked wonders at Porto; he will have to do likewise at Chelsea.
Who amongst us remembers the last time Chelsea really played well? Not me, and I'm a professional. Then again, Franck Arnesen is also professional and he was ridiculous at Stamford Bridge: it was his job to pre-empt the declines of Frank Lampard, John Terry & Co and he splurged fortunes on a slew of young talents that (i) were not worth it or (b) Chelsea's managers could not bring themselves to regularly play for fear of revolt or reprimand. (Interestingly, Arnesen refused to admit he was wrong about many of those players so brought them to Hamburg ... who are currently sprawled far below tonight's visitors to Stamford Bridge, at the bottom of the Bundesliga). Almost the whole Chelsea team needs regeneration. Villas-Boas obviously knows this: his signings of Juan Mata, Orio Romeu and the potentially very important Raul Meireles indicate that he knows the team can't go on relying on Lampard, Florent Malouda and the young but stagnant John Mikel Obi. Are those signings sufficient? Can they be integrated quickly? And what about the other parts of the team? How long will the manager give Fernando Torres to show that he can indeed combine prolifically with Mata? Was he omitted against Sunderland to rest him for this match or because Villas-Boas has already tired of his tired ways? Romelu Lukaku may not be available in the Champions League but Daniel Sturridge could hardly have made a stronger case to be picked ahead of the seemingly-spent Spaniard. Tonight's team-sheet will, then, be interesting, as of course will the performance. Both will give us indications (though not definitive ones, obviously) as to how quickly Villas-Boas is able to oversee the evolution of Chelsea.
And if all that still leaves you cold, then you can go follow Dortmund v Arsenal with Barney Ronay here. Those are your choices. There may also be other ones but I'm not telling.
And here are the teams ... and look at that, Villas-Boas has bitten the bullet and omitted Lampard and Terry (although he has chosen the timing wisely, since the fact Chelsea are facing United at the weekend means the manager can say he is resting them and re-insert them at the weekend if the guys tonight let him down):
Chelsea: Cech; Bonsingwa, Ivanovic, David Luiz, Cole; Meireles, Mikel, Malouda; Sturridge, Torres, Mata
Subs: Hilario, Lampard, Ferreira, McEachran, Kalou, Alex, Anelka
Leverkusen: Leno; Castro, Reinartz, Toprak, Kadlec; Bender, Rolfes, Ballack; Sam, Kiessling, Schurrle
Subs: Yelldel, Schwaab, Friedrich, Renato Augusto, Deriyok, Bellarabi
Referee: S Lannoy (France)
Glenn Hoddle, while talking on Sky about Arsene Wenger, has just said: "this is the least squad he's ever had". And on the subject of Fernando Torres, he says: "he's still a great player ... his movement off the ball is better than anyone else's in the Premier League." So, Fernando Torres = the new Oyvind Leonhardsen?
For those of you watching on Sky, Chris McCann wonders: "what in Jesus has happened to Jeff Stelling's eyebrows ... he Looks like a villain from Aladdin panto."
"Can't argue with Hoddle on the Torres point," nods Gary Naylor. "The quality of his movement of the ball is only surpassed by quality of his movement off the pitch, come the sixtieth minute of every game he starts."
"I'm sorry to say from what I've seen this year Lampard's contribution is limited to penalty taking," groans Timothy Malcolm. "Terry will still be a major player for Chelsea for a few more years but they need to start giving McEchran some minutes if they see him as a medium term replacement for Lampard."
Lots of empty spaces in the Stamford Bridge stands. Either there's an inordinate queue at the toilets or many tickets haven't been sold.
Leverkusen kick off, and within seconds Kiessling bangs a long-distance shot way, way wide. Meanwhile, as so often, the away fans are making most of the noise at Stamford Bridge.
2 min: Encouraging from Chelsea! Bosingwa and Sturridge combine snappily down the left before the latter pings a cross in for Torres, who lets fly with a fine acrobatic effort that flies just over from 16 yards.
3 min: Leverkusen have a goal disallowed! Rolfes headed an in-swinging corner into the net but it's harshly chalked off for a supposed foul by Toprak. Then Chelsea race up the other end and have a goal disallowed too! Mata crossed from the elft, Torres flicked towards goals and Meireles stretched out a leg in an attempt to help it in ... but from an offside position: thing is, he didn't actually touch it. So Torres's woe is prolonged.
6 min: It's been an excellent start to the game, with Chelsea playing at a much higher tempo that they have done for a while, and Leverkusen showing themselves to be handy on the counter-attack. Gripping.
8 min: Poor old Torres. Now he gets a booking for an absurdly wild tackle on Kadlec and then standing over the prostrate defender and berating him almost a la Roy Keane v Alf Inge Haaland many moons ago.
10 min: Torres again in the thick of the action! And again denied! Mata again delivered from the left, Torres took two touches and, under severe pressure from defenders, fired on a target from eight yards. But Leno scrambled it away with his legs.
13 min: Sturridge has been very bright wide on the right so far and Mata likewise on the left. They are two big reasons for the improvement in service to Torres. You get the feeling Torres is either going to score several tonight ... or get sent off in ignominy.
15 min: Meireles oafishly brings down Kiessling jsut outside the Chelsea box, offering Leverkusen a fine scoring chance.
16 min: Ballack clumps the freekick into the Chelsea wall.
18 min: After a misguided punched clearance by Leno, Malouda attempts to head the ball into the net from 30 yards. Power was good, direction bad.
20 min: Malouda pings in a cross from the left, Torres beats his market to it but his header from 12 yards is deflected over the bar.
22 min: Germans fans, eh? Not content with nicking 'Football's Coming Home' back in '96,k now they're taunting the silent locals at Stamford Bridge with chants, auf Englisch, of "You only sing when you're winning". Mind you, it's Chelsea who are looking more like winning at the moment, as their vim and fizz continues to trouble the visitors.
25 min: Castro flights a freekick towards Toprak but Ivanovic nuts clear on the penalty spot.
26 min: Chelsea lucky to escape with an outbreak of rashness in their defence. First David Luiz galloped to intercept a pass but missed, then Ivanovic, attempting to tidy up, was dispossessed by Schurrle ... and was fortunate that the referee gave him a freekick for a foul that never was.
28 min: Torres tries to wriggle his way past two defenders and create space for as shot in the box ... but he failed to get the ball adequately under control and it ran out of play.
29 min: Here's a chance for Chelsea: Sturridge was pulled down just outside the Leverkusen box, a little to the left. Mata sizes up a shot ... and then curls the ball way wide.
32 min: Fine strike by Sturridge from 25 yards, brings a smart save from the keeper! "What's with the London-centric bias?" fumes Neale Redington. "You have Arsenal and Chelsea Champions League games covered, but not a mention of Liverpool?" Have you considered organising a protest march?
33 min: Anything Sturridge can do, Torres ... can't. He attempts to outdo Sturridge's shot of a moment ago but shanks it high and wide.
35 min: There really is much more energy and speed to Chelsea tonight, with all of the newcomers impressing. Bosingwa, who seemed to have fallen out of favour with Carlo Ancelotti but has been in cracking form so far this season, drifts a nice cross towards the penalty spot, where Ivanovic gets a head to it. It's deflected wide for a corner.
37 min: Bosingwa lashes a low cross towards the near post. Sturridge gets the jump on the defenders but Leno pounces at his feet to nudge the ball out for a corner, which comes to nought.
38 min: Castro booked for clipping Malouda after being skilled up, as the young folks say.
41 min: Meireles battles to retrieve the ball after losing it. Chelsea resume pinging it about. Bosingwa eventually lofts a rather aimless cross into the box. Leverkusen welly clear. "Neale Redington should try being Scottish," suggests Ryan Dunne. I would like to try being Scottish. How does one do that? I have a pipe, if that helps. "We're lucky if we get one Old Firm MBM a season! And that's despite the fact that Scotland is a proper country, whereas Liverpool is more of an, er, state of mine (and surely Neale can console himself with the fact that Liverpool has had Five Champions League Trophies whereas London United has had one less than Glasgow?)"
43 min: POW! Sturridge receives the ball with his back to goal, rolls his man and unleashes a lighting bolt from 25 yards. Just wide.
44 min: Mikel, venturing further forward than he has done for about five years, is fouled on the edge of the box. Mata curls it into the centre, where Ivanovic meets it. But his header goes straight at the keeper.
Half-time: It's been an enjoyable half, and that's not something we've been able to say during a Chelsea match for a long time. The home team have played with dynamism, speed and purpose and have regularly threatened even if they have seldom truly dissected the Leverkusen defence. The visitors, meanwhile, have shown that they can be dangerous on the break, all of which is making for an intriguing contest. Less interestingly, I'm going to the toilet now. See you soon.
Your guide to being Scottish, courtesy of Scotsman Ryan Dunne. "Assuming that a Guardian hack can rise to the 'drink too much' criteria of being an honorary Scotsman, the only other prerequisites are knowing the 'it's shite being Scottish' speech from Trainspotting, supporting either Rangers (hurrah!) or Celtic (boo!), maintaining a Fergie-cum-Larry David air of chirpy cynicism, and a fondness for fights and deep-fried goodness. Although dressing correctly is important too."
47 min: The second half has resumed ... but now time for another pause as David Luiz is down injured. Villas-Boas is looking worried. He's even stopped squatting.
49 min: David Luiz is back on the pitch, but hobbling a tad. While he was gone Michael Ballack reminded Chelsea fans what they were missing by tonking a shot into the stands from 20 yards.
52 min: Sturridge twists and turns and then drives a cross to the near post. Torres gets the jump on the defenders but can't divert the ball towards goal. "Just to add to the guide to being Scottish, thought I'd send you this <a href="Just to add to the guide to being Scottish, thought I'd send you this rather classy link," chips in David Kerr. "It's a T in the park clip really, but its a belter, ken."
55 min: Unlucky Leverkusen. Kiessling and Sam picked their way through the Chelsea defence but then Kiessling slipped, preventing him from collecting the return pass from Sam that would have left him with a free shot on goal from 18 yards.
57 min: The best chance of the game falls to Ballack ... but Cech saves his low shot from eight yards! But the Leverkusen threat is growing and no mistake: they again cut through Chelsea with aplomb there, Ballack surging from deep to latch onto a crafty through-ball from Sam.
59 min: Schurrle turns David Luiz on the half-way line and begins sprinting towards the danger zone, only for David Luiz to wrap his arm around him and drag him to the ground: the referee awards him the yellow card he deserves.
62 min: Having sized up Chelsea and taken their best shots, Leverkusen are emboldened. They're committing more and more players to the attack and making inroads each time: Chelsea look vulnerable at the back, with both David Luiz and Ivanovic a little skittish.
64 min: Chelsea come close! Cole crossed from the left, Sturridge, under pressure from Toprak, met it on the volley and the keeper pushed it on to the post and out! Wunderbar save!
65 min: Chelsea changes: Sturridge (surprisingly) and Meireles off, as Lampard and Anelka on.
66 min: To tremendous applause, Ballack is withdrawn. He's replaced by Renato Augusto.
GOAL! Chelsea 1-0 Leverkusen (David Luiz 67') And it's a superb finish! The Brazilian began the move with a burst from the back and then loitered around the danger zone long enough for Torres to tee him up: he then lashed a low shot from the c corner of the box into the bottom corner of the net!
70 min: Toprak trips himself up on the edge of his area. Anelka nicks the ball off him and cuts it back ... it's cleared off Torres's boost by Reinartz ... Mata seizes on it and curls towards the bottom corner but without enough power to bother the keeper. "Your match sounds as dull as dishwater frankly," snipes Audrey Anderson. "Meanwhile We're in Venice watching Barca v AC Milan in a bar on a cinema-size screen. With a stonking G&T." And having such a whopping good time that your typing out messages to me?
71 min: Chelsea are going for the kill ... but Leno keeps Leverkusen alive with a splendid save, tipping Mata's 14-yards shot over after another Anelka pull-back.
73 min: Another Leverkusen switch: Sam off, Swiss youngster Derdiyok on.
74 min: Derdiyok makes an immediate impact: he cops a yellow for a lubberly foul.
76 min: Chelsea change: David Luiz off, Alex on.
78 min: A trademark swirler from Lampard. Well held by the keeper.
80 min: Leverkusen change: Balitsch on, Bender off.
81 min: Anelka nuts a Mata cross into the net ... but it's chalked off for offside. It is not at all clear who, if anyone, was offside. "I'm yet to buy my Chelsea shirt for the season as I've been torn between Mata or Luiz as the player on the back," confesses Timothy Malcom. "Could I possibly venture to ask your opinion on this critical matter?" Surely the solution to that conundrum is obvious: get a Mata shirt and cultivate a David Luiz barnet.
84 min: Anelka, who has been impressive since coming on - he almost never gives the ball away - breaks up a Leverkusen attack and then spots the chance to put Torres clean through ... but guess why I said almost? Because with the Spaniard baying for the decisive pass he knocked it straight to a defender.
86 min: Chelsea have retreated into their own third now, challenging Leverkusen to penetrate them. They're looking comfortable at the moment.
89 min: Bosingwa botches an attempted crossed and is fortunate that Leverkusen botch the ensuing counter-attack. "Perhaps I can help Timothy Malcolm [re: 81 mins]," purrs Dominic Wright. "In Spanish 'mata' means 'kill', either in the informal imperative or third person singular. It can also mean 'thicket' or 'shrub'. I don't speak Portuguese, but I suspect Luiz means 'Louise'."
GOAL! Chelsea 2-0 Leverkusen (Mata 90+2) Hats off to Torres, who could have had a shot himself from an acute angle but instead squared for Mata to tap into an empty net. A fine goal and a second assist for Torres.
Full-time: That was better from Chelsea. They still haven't found true fluency but there was encouraging progress as they played with real energy, pace and at times panache. Mata was splendid, bringing an ability to conjure in tight space and dribble past opponents; Sturridge was lively and sharp while he was on, as was Raul Meireles; Cole had a strong game, David Luiz was exciting going forward but a little sketchy defensively; and Torres proved a canny and powerful fulcrum even though his control let him down a couple of times when he might have scored. Leverkusen were worthy opponents. All in all, Villas-Boas must be congratulated on the improvement shown by his team tonight.