The livid chants for José Mourinho to return to these parts went up just after the hour in a contest that had long since degenerated into a slog. Chelsea remain afloat in the Europa League, though everything about their progress beyond Sparta Prague into a meeting with Steaua Bucharest in the last 16 was unconvincing, and the crowd would not be hoodwinked into believing all is rosy. The reigning European champions should not be suffering occasions as excruciating as this.
Eden Hazard's rasping shot from just inside the area, dispatched past a goalkeeper who had excelled all night, salvaged the evening but, where such dramatic last-minute qualification would normally provoke scenes of delirious celebration, the best the locals could muster was relief. Rather they were left to drift away with familiar feelings of dissatisfaction festering over everything from Fernando Torres's brittle form to the fragility in their own defensive ranks, the presence of Rafael Benítez on the touchline to the reality that a tie that should have been a formality had proved so onerous.
Sparta, after all, had succumbed at home in the first leg, are only third in the Czech league and have not played a domestic fixture for two months. They should have been there for the taking. Instead they weathered a brief flurry of early chances, each spurned by Torres, and proceeded to lead for 73 minutes plus two more of stoppage time, forever threatening a second on the counterattack, before Hazard lashed in his late reward. The concession seemed cruel, not least on Tomas Vaclik, who deserved more for the saves he had made en route. Benítez pointed to the opportunities created – "We had 22 attempts and 60% of the possession" – as evidence of home dominance but the progress still seemed fortunate.
Torres's labours summed it up. Twice in the opening exchanges he might have prospered, first side-footing Victor Moses' pass just wide of a post and then cushioning a volley from Juan Mata's delivery on to the roof of the net. Thereafter, his body language was that of a man who did not expect to excel, the ball bouncing off him awkwardly, not least when Ramires hammered a volley goalwards. The header high and wide in first-half stoppage time was dispatched with little conviction. Sometimes it can seem cruel scrutinising a player enduring such a clear crisis of confidence but Chelsea are right to expect goals as well as industry from a player with Torres's curriculum vitae, as well as his £50m price tag.
The Spaniard has changed his haircut, even switched his boot manufacturers, as if searching desperately for that form of old. Yet he has scored only once since Christmas Day, and that against Brentford of League One, which suggests the arrival of Demba Ba last month has done very little to revive him. The Cup-tied Senegalese was supposed to ease the burden but Ba feels increasingly missed when he is unavailable, as he was here. "If Fernando continues working like today and playing like he did today, he will score goals," said Benítez. "I'm convinced about that." Yet it still sounded optimistic, even unbelievable.
When Torres did have a positive effect, nodding on for John Terry, Vaclik produced yet more acrobatics and a fine save to preserve the visitors' early lead. The 23-year-old was outstanding, his best stop conjured just before the interval to deny Mata after he had plucked down a centre, flicked up and spun, then volleyed down and goalwards, only for an outstretched hand to push the attempt on to the roof of the net. Ramires eventually bypassed him by thrashing against a post after Oscar's fine run but Chelsea looked desperate. Oscar was one of their brighter performers and his substitution was greeted with jeers from a disillusioned support, even if it would be Hazard, his replacement, who saved the day.
Sparta were left crestfallen as they saluted their boisterous travelling support at the end. The manager, Vitezslav Lavicka, stressed how proud he was in the aftermath, claiming his team would travel home "with a positive feeling" despite their elimination. Their goal had been cleverly crafted, Lukas Vacha's quick free-kick inside Ramires collected by Václav Kadlec on the run. Gary Cahill tottered over as his own momentum carried him forward and the diminutive forward checked and wriggled back into play in possession, with his pull-back perfect for David Lafata, bursting into the box, to place high into the net with the entire back-line pulled horribly out of position.
They might have added more, Petr Cech denying Tomas Prikryl and both Marek Matejovsky and Kadlec close on the break late on. But this was not to be their night. Chelsea progress with Steaua to come but are still some way off convincing.