Smoke and mirrors at the Bridge

LoftusWith so much publicity surrounding the inclusion of a single youth product in the Chelsea squad against Sporting Lisbon, you’d think that the current Premier League leaders had discovered the next Jimmy Greaves, Duncan Edwards or Diego Maradona. There’s no doubt that Ruben Loftus-Cheek (a name that sounds as though it has been created by the left-over tiles from a game of Scrabble), has ability, otherwise the club’s PR machine wouldn’t have gone into overdrive, but is he really that good, or is this just a case of Chelsea trying too hard to demonstrate they can develop their own talent?

There’s been rumours for a while that Chelsea have a few decent youngsters – their recent record in the FA Youth Cup (winners in 2012 and 2014, runners-up in 2013) suggests it is not just hype – and Loftus-Cheek is one of a number of players who may emerge in the coming year or so. Both he and Nathan Ake, who is now on the fringe of the squad, may be seen as long-term replacements for Chelsea skipper John Terry.

Loftus-Cheek got barely nine minutes when he finally came onto the pitch to very loud cheering. By that time, Jose Mourinho’s team had clinched victory and were safely through to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. He showed some good touches and he looked strong and capable. Let’s hope he gets the chance to truly make it at Chelsea, unlike other “great hopes” – such as the nomadic Josh McEachren – of the past.

Talking of the past, there was a time when Sporting Lisbon were a fearsome opponent, but like so many clubs and national sides, they have been pushed to the periphery of European football. They came to London with a big following, taking over the District Line down to London SW6. Chelsea’s growing profile has now prompted London Underground to announce that Fulham Broadway is now the place to “alight for Chelsea Football Club”. That didn’t matter to the green and white-scarved sons of Lisboa, who were warming up for their night at the Bridge with a selection of songs far removed from the Portuguese Fado, a mournful musical form popular in torch-lit taverns around the Iberian peninsular. It’s one of the delights of European football that colourful, noisy and, normally good-natured supporters come to London for these games.

And sometimes, they break the rules. In their massed ranks could be seen glowing lights which gave off clouds of smoke. Somehow they had breached the security check and brought small flares into the ground. If you’ve got a bottle of water or a satsuma in a bag, you’ve got no chance of getting past the high-vis jackets, but a flammable object, capable of causing damage and inconvenience (and even killing someone), no problem!

There was nothing illuminating about Sporting Lisbon’s team, however. Chelsea fielded the likes of Mo Salah and Obi Mikel, apparently playing for their futures, and brought back “World Cup winner” Andre Schurrle into the side. Mourinho, apparently, doesn’t fancy Schurrle too much, possibly because he doesn’t track back too willingly. Salah has been with the club a year and hasn’t always impressed, but you cannot fault his workrate.

It didn’t take long for Chelsea to take the lead, Cesc Fabregas netting from the penalty spot after eight minutes. Schurrle, with a neat finish, added a second after 16 minutes. It was really “game over” at that point, although the Lisbon fans hadn’t taken that on board and kept singing.

Sporting pulled a goal back in the 50th minute when Silva chested the ball down and sent a low drive past Petr Cech, although events in the Schalke v Maribor game were going against them at this point. But six minutes later, Mikel tapped the ball home from a Fabregas free kick to restore Chelsea’s two-goal advantage.

Mourinho expressed a little sadness for his compatriots, but as he rightly said, the Champions League really starts from now. It is unlikely that the young Loftus-Cheek will get much of a look-in during the crucial two-legged stage of the competition, but he did, at least, get to taste Champions League football.

As for Sporting, they go back to the Primeira Liga, where they have ground to make up on the leaders. They haven’t won the title since 2002 and although they finished runners-up to local rivals Benfica last season, they’re already eight points behind them, despite only losing one game. They’ve always got the Europa League to look forward to. Note to the Sporting kitman: green and white hoops next time, please. Let’s see the true colours!

Chelsea’s possible opponents in the last 16: Juventus, Paris St. Germain, Basel, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk.

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