Rafael Benítez launched a defence of Fernando Torres's spluttering form after Chelsea squeezed beyond Sparta Prague and into the last 16 of the Europa League courtesy of Eden Hazard's stoppage-time equaliser. The Belgian substitute's 92nd-minute goal set up a tie with Steaua Bucharest next month and spared Benítez's side an awkward period of extra-time, with Sunday's trip to Manchester City in mind. The European champions had created enough chances to prevail, though their profligacy, not least that of Torres, had left the tie on edge until the end.
The interim first-team manager delivered a show of support for his compatriot in the aftermath despite Torres now having scored only once, against Brentford of League One, in 14 games stretching back before Christmas. "We could be talking about Fernando not scoring goals and him having had four chances but let's turn it into a positive: he had those four chances," said Benítez. "I've seen him in games not having these chances because he's not in the right position. But this wasn't a situation where the striker disappeared. He was in the right place at the right time.
"The goalkeeper stopped him, and he missed some chances. Are we disappointed he didn't score? Yes, we are. But he was still giving his all to the team. He's playing better. He didn't play badly tonight. You can analyse a striker purely on the number of goals he scores – maybe you're right – but he did a great job for the team. It's not easy against a team playing so deep, but he won the ball in the air, brought options for those around him. I thought he played well. If he continues working like today and playing like he did today, he will score goals. I'm convinced about that."
Benítez pointed to Chelsea having 22 shots on goal and enjoying 60% of the possession but he conceded he had been anxious as the seconds ticked down and extra-time loomed large before his substitute saved the day. Sparta had time only to kick-off from the restart before the Macedonian official blew for full-time.
The home side's captain, John Terry, still admitted frustration at the team's inability to impose themselves earlier on the tie. "It wasn't our best performance and the way we started was disappointing," he said. "We left it as late as we could, as sometimes that's the best way, but we're in the next round and we're happy with that. We've kept going and going and going. The first 80 minutes nothing went for us. We had a lot of attempts on goal but it didn't go for us. But the persistence from the lads was fantastic. We're still very disappointed to be out of the Champions League and watching that on Tuesday and Wednesday nights is frustrating but this is a good competition and we're in it to win it."