Oscar banishes Chelsea's Euro blues
Super sub eases pressure on Benítez as Sparta stumble at home
Posted: February 20, 2013
Chelsea's Oscar celebrates after his Valentine's Day goal against Sparta Feb. 14.
Interim coach Rafael Benítez hasn't exactly endeared himself to Chelsea fans during his first three months in charge at Stamford Bridge, but he must be hoping an inspired substitution in the first leg of his team's Europa League last-32 tie against Sparta Praha will have gone some way to placating them.
On a freezing and otherwise lackluster night in the Czech capital Feb. 14, Brazilian international Oscar scored the only goal of the game less than a minute after entering the field of play, giving the Blues a vital one-goal advantage ahead of the second leg in London this week and ending the hosts' 11-match unbeaten home run in the competition.
Vítězslav Lavička's men hadn't played a serious match since Dec. 6 due to the Czech league's winter break and looked nervous during the opening exchanges. Chelsea Captain Frank Lampard stung the palms of Tomáš Vaclík with a shot from distance, while Marko Marin - a constant threat on the break - exploited gaps down the Sparta right to set up Eden Hazard, who could only drag the ball across goal.
Having survived those early scares, the hosts settled into their stride and should have led at half-time after two glorious chances for winter signing David Lafata. First, on 15 minutes, he volleyed over from Tomáš Zápotočný's pinpoint cross and then, just before the interval, he uncharacteristically fired wide from six yards out as confusion reigned inside Petr Čech's penalty box.
However, any hopes the match would explode into life after the break were unfounded, with neither goalkeeper called into meaningful action and passes all too often going astray. Chelsea striker Fernando Torres summed up his lack of recent form by slicing a miscued shot out for a throw-in, and the game appeared to be heading for a dour, goalless draw until Oscar's moment of magic eight minutes from the end.
Little more than 45 seconds after replacing Juan Mata, he exchanged passes with Hazard before striding through a static Sparta defense and slotting expertly past Vaclík. It was a killer blow that leaves the hosts facing an uphill battle to progress in what has at times been an impressive Europa League campaign, with victories over Feyenoord and 2012 finalists Athletic Bilbao.
"From the 60th minute, we were under pressure," Lavička reflected afterward. "We lost balls when we were attacking, and then our opponents had their chances. Unfortunately, we didn't have the energy, and Chelsea punished us with the goal they scored. We tried to prepare as best we could, but our opponents were very strong."
Benítez, meanwhile, is eyeing a last-16 encounter with either Ajax Amsterdam or Steaua Bucharest but admits there is still work to be done. "We have confidence with a lot of respect for Sparta," he said. "We've scored the away goal, and we have to finish the job at home. We know it will not be easy."
Football: Brilliant Plzeň close in on next round
While Sparta faltered at the Generali Arena, their Gambrinus liga rivals Viktoria Plzeň enjoyed arguably the biggest result in the club's 102-year history when they beat Serie A title challengers Napoli 3-0 in Italy.
Despite facing a three-pronged attack that included the tournament's top scorer Edinson Cavani, the visitors managed to keep the home side's imposing strike force at bay and will now surely fancy their chances of reaching the competition's last 16, especially given that no team has ever overcome a three-goal first-leg deficit in the Europa League.
Vladimír Darida smashed Plzeň into the lead after 28 minutes, picking up the loose ball after Jan Kovařík was dispossessed, before František Rajtoral - who earlier had an effort chalked out for offside - doubled his side's advantage with 11 minutes to go as he slipped in at the far post to chip over the advancing Morgan De Sanctis.
Although Napoli pushed forward in numbers after that, they couldn't find a way through, and Stanislav Tecl rounded off Plzeň's emphatic victory at the death, when, put clear by Martin Fillo, he drove a low shot past De Sanctis.
Football: Baroš back at boyhood club Baník
Following weeks of speculation, former Czech international Milan Baroš has rejoined Baník Ostrava - the club where he started his career almost 20 years ago - after his contract was canceled by Turkish league leaders Galatasaray earlier this month.
Baník confirmed the news on their official website Feb. 18, revealing the striker had signed a deal until the end of next season, 2014, although he will be allowed to join a foreign side for free this summer if there is interest in him. Baroš will also donate his nominal salary to the club's youth projects.
"It would be strange if I took pay here, as I gave 1 million Kč to help the club [last] October," he said at his unveiling. "I've come here to help the club, and not only on the pitch."
The 31-year-old, who became a household name at English giants Liverpool (with whom he won the Champions League in 2005), hit 20 goals in his first season with Galatasaray, making him the league's top scorer. However, he failed to appear for them at all this campaign and left by mutual consent following the arrival of former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba.
He should make his second debut for Baník at home to České Budějovice Feb. 23.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
- Plzen can progress further, Chelsea look good with Milan, Spurs need another gear. ...
- I don't know what the temperature will be at Plzen tonight, but it won't be ...