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Meireles thunderbolt sets up Barcelona clash as Chelsea progress


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Chelsea FC 2-1 SL Benfica

A 91st-minute winner delivered by the right foot of Raul Meireles ensured that Chelsea brushed aside the irritation of SL Benfica to set up a mouth-watering last four showdown with Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League.

On a night where emotions ran high and the stakes were even greater, victory was barely deserved as Roberto di Matteo's side - already a goal up thanks to Salomon Kalou's winner in the Estadio da Luz - toiled in their attempts to finish off a side that battled courageously for 90 minutes against the odds. Jorge Jesus' men will leave with a moral victory; the Portuguese side were excellent despite being reduced to ten men after stand-in skipper Maxi Pereira was sent off for a second bookable offence with five minutes of the first half remaining.

Chelsea have often been on that side of the line during the Champions League's latter stages; but this time they have made it over the finish line. Only just - but they are in the semi-finals nonetheless. The prospect of a last four clash with the defending European champions is enough to sate the appetite, but this performance will only serve to unease Blues supporters ahead of this date with destiny. A small contingent aside, the starting eleven chosen by di Matteo were largely insipid and uninspiring. The performance was lacklustre at best, with the unforgivable sin of complacency almost leaving the Londoners humiliated after Javi Garcia netted a late equaliser.

Thankfully there was time for substitute Meireles to stroll the length of the pitch before hitting the sweetest of rasping drives into the top corner. Power, placement and a considerable amount of spin on the ball saw the net bulge at the Shed End, the the Portuguese midfielder, once of Porto, made sure the travelling supporters knew exactly who had finally put them out of Europe.

Spirited and remarkable just about sums up the performance of the Lisbon club, but that counts for very little on the biggest stage of all. A goal up on the night thanks to Frank Lampard's 21st-minute spot-kick, Chelsea slipped into the dangerous zone of presumed comfort seemingly guaranteed by their man advantage. Yet if you were to look at the key battles across the pitch, this injury-stricken Benfica side totally outplayed their hosts. It was difficult to notice they were handicapped in such a fashion as they created just as many guilt-edged chances as the Blues.

Yet it was not solely arrogance on the part of the Chelsea players that played its part in almost undermining all the good work of last week's win in the Estadio da Luz; some woeful shooting was to play its part. The most notable example will go down as one of the most notorious misses in recent history. Forget Torres' miss at Old Trafford after rounding David de Gea. Missing an open goal from a yard out is a difficult thing to achieve but Ramires did so with aplomb; somehow managing to gloriously divert the ball away from the goal in a moment that would have killed the game, the tie, and the spirits of the visitors.

It was a moment that so nearly cost the Blues. On other occasions it was great goalkeeping from Petr Cech that maintained the slender advantage; thrice the Czech footballer of the year excelled to deny Benfica. Yet the Chelsea number 1 hardly covered himself in glory as Garcia nodded home from almost under the crossbar to threaten a tense finale; yet the veil of suspense around Stamford Bridge was lifted in an instant as Meireles led a three-man counter-attack to kill off the tie. If only that crucial second goal had come forty-five minutes earlier - talk about doing it the hard way... again!

The result and the performance do not bode well for the semi-final encounter with Barcelona, but this is the beauty of football. Against Valencia and Napoli, the Blues were against the ropes and it inspired the eleven on the pitch to put in an almighty effort. Firm underdogs right from the off, the pressure will be on Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi to deliver. The Blues may bank on their imperious home form in Europe; five wins from five makes for impressive reading, especially considering that Chelsea have conceded just twice in this season's edition of the competition. Throw in the fact that the West London outfit are unbeaten against the Catalan giants with eleven men on the pitch and that UEFA owe us a penalty or four, there may well just be a chance. It will be a night where Chelsea's chief cheerleader and fans' favourite Didier Drogba will be instrumental in rousing the troops for what will need to be a monumental effort.

_59498906_59498905.jpgIt will be a different Chelsea that tackles Messi and company in a fortnight's time, but this was a performance intent on just getting the job done. Considering his policy of rotation, it was a surprise that di Matteo opted for ten of the eleven that started against Aston Villa on Saturday, the sole change being Ramires coming in for Daniel Sturridge. Knowing a draw would be enough to progress, the Blues clearly had instructions to get this done in no more than third gear.

Early Benfica pressure put paid to the idea that Jorge Jesus' men would be lambs to the slaughter. Excellent last-ditch blocks from Lampard and Terry preceded a procession of yellow cards as the referee sought to quite literally stamp his authority on the game during a mad period where players were booked for near enough anything; late tackles, back-chat, unsportsmanlike behaviour. Domir Skomina had felt the wrath of Arsene Wenger earlier in the season as Arsenal fell foul to AC Milan in the first knock-out round, and Jorge Jesus was soon on his case as he brandished his yellow card at will.

Much to the ire of the Benfica boss, the referee pointed to the spot in the 20th minute as Ashley Cole was bundled over in the penalty area. No question about it, this one was indeed a stone-waller as Garcia clumsily made contact with the flying full-back inside the box as the England international sought to bring John Terry's long ball under his spell. A short delay increased the weight of pressure on Frank Lampard's shoulders, but as he has done on countless occasions in the past, the man for the big moment did not disappoint as he powered the ball home. Lampard was to be one of the few in Chelsea blue that will emerge with credit after a composed midfield performance.

A long-lost part of football is the manoeuvred set-play, and Chelsea were almost caught out by a training ground routine as Cardozo hit the ball goalwards after Aimar had picked out Garcia on the edge of the box. For the second time in the tie, Benfica's star man had found a way past Petr Cech but not the Chelsea defence, as the covering John Terry cleared off the line expertly. A great asset for any central defender, Terry has always excelled in the area of anticipation, and his leadership and organisation was much-missed as he was substituted in the second half.

Despite being down to ten men - Pereira picking up his second booking for a late, studs-up challenge - Benfica came out full of renewed vigour after the interval and at times it looked like Chelsea were the side playing one short of a full contingent as the Portuguese side grew in confidence. Their passing was crisp and inventive whilst the hosts barely managed to string a sequence together, and the home side were so nearly punished for their lethargy as the dangerous Cardozo swung his left boot at a loose ball in the area, only for Cech to extend a long arm and parry the ball over superbly.

If ever there was a warning sign to take heed of, that was it, and the Blues went close twice in the space of a couple of minutes as first Ramires inexplicably missed the chance to settle the tie as he failed to connect with Kalou's shot-cum-cross, before Torres was denied by the slightest of deflections that diverted his goalbound effort wide of the target. Mata would later waste a similarly glorious opportunity whilst Benfica chances were being spurned with equal regularity as first substitue Djalo headed wastefully over before the outstretched leg of John Terry's replacement; Gary Cahill, diverted a drive from Aimar wide of Cech's goal.

Kalou then stole the ball off the toe of Mata in the penalty area as another glorious chance was wasted. Chelsea were made to pay as Cech, moments after making a good save to turn aside Djalo's header, made a mess of the resultant corner as he was beaten to the punch by Garcia, who nodded home to set up a grandstand finish. The man who had conceded the penalty what seemed aeons ago had got his side back in the tie, and di Matteo instantly responded with the insurance policy of Didier Drogba up front, and also the introduction of Raul Meireles to sure up a midfield exploited countless times by incisive passing and intelligent movement.

But as the desperation of the moment got to the Benfica players, Meireles kept his nerve to win the ball in his own half as he chased down John Mikel Obi's clearing header, before charging forward and lashing into the top corner of Artur's goal to finally silence the vociferous travelling support and send the Blues through to the semi-finals for the sixth time in nine seasons. Barcelona will be an altogether different proposition to Benfica and Napoli, but if this is to be Chelsea's last Champions League adventure for at least a year, then at least Terry and company will be given the chance for a final hurrah as they bid to bring home that which Roman Abramovich covets most.

Surely they can't pull this one out of the bag?

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry © (Cahill 59), Cole; Mikel, Lampard; Ramires, Mata (Meireles 79), Kalou; Torres (Drogba 87).

Benfica (4-1-3-2): Artur; Pereira ©, Garcia, Emerson, Capdevilla; Matic; Bruno César (Rodrigo 72), Witsel, Gaitán (Djalo 61); Cardozo (Oliveira 56), Aimar.

The TalkChelsea.net Man of the Match is awarded to Chelsea's number 8; Frank Lampard.

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