Draw leaves Chelsea as best-positioned EPL side in Champions League

Wednesday February 26th, 2014

Fernando Torres, right, scored an opener for Chelsea, but the Blues go into the home leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie vs. Galatasaray level at 1-1.

Given the noise and the atmosphere in Istanbul, given the performances of the other Premier League sides in the last 16 of the Champions League this season, Chelsea would probably have been happy enough with a 1-1 draw from its first-leg tie away to Galatasaray. But given how the game stood after an hour, it probably feels like a letdown.

Chelsea dominated the first half hour, was comfortable for the half hour after that, but by the end Jose Mourinho had brought on John Obi Mikel to close down the center. And so, at the end of the first legs the only two away sides not to win were English, and the possibility remains that, for the second season running, there will be no Premier League representative in the Champions League quarterfinals.

Toward the end of the group stage, when managers start resting players, it's often noted that it doesn't really matter whether you finish first or second in the group: by the time it gets to the last 16, the theory goes, there are so few weak teams left that the advantage of coming top is minimal. Nobody's putting that theory about this season: of eight first-leg ties, six have been won by the away team - the side that finished top of its group. The only one to have lost, to heap further ignominy on David Moyes, is Manchester United.

What that means is that six of the second legs will be something of a non-event, and it also raises the thought that perhaps the distribution of wealth in European football is so unequal now that the top eight sides effectively occupy a league of their own, able to dismiss the rest without too much effort. It's probably premature to draw that conclusion - and there are a couple of notable quirks, such as Manchester City, as wealthy as any side, having such a low coefficient it ended up being grouped with Bayern Munich - but it is a trend worth taking note.

LYTTLETON: Madrid thrashes Schalke, Mancini counters Mourinho

For a long time it looked as though Chelsea would be part of the tendency as Galatasaray began with a crazily high defensive line. There is nothing in itself wrong with a high line, but a defense that pushes up must be accompanied by pressure on the ball in midfield. If that pressure isn't there, opposing midfielders have time to measure passes into the space behind the back four onto which runners can charge.

As early as the fourth minute Fernando Muslera, the Galatasaray keeper, was forced to charge from his goal to clear, his uncertain kick falling to Willian, who would have scored had Muslera not reacted brilliantly to divert his first-time effort wide with his head. Four minutes later, though, there was no reprieve, with Andre Schurrle laying in Cesar Azpilicueta, who squared for Fernando Torres to score.

There were other breaks that could have had the game won by halftime as Galatasaray was almost embarrassingly overrun.

"We were a little bit disappointed at halftime we were only 1-0 up," Frank Lampard told Sky. "We controlled the game. They didn't have any chances and we had four or five with very good counterattacks. With the atmosphere you know they can always get a bit of an up, you know they always likely to have a period [of domination]."

Although Roberto Mancini - yet again in continental competition - could be questioned for his tactical approach at the start of the game, he at least was able to ease the problems. The young Bosnian Izet Hajrovic, who started on the right, was withdrawn after half an hour, having failed to make a single or interception, one of the reasons Azpilicueta was able to raid forwards almost at will.

The introduction of Yekta Kurtulus meant a switch to a five-man midfield, and, while Chelsea continued to threaten on the break, that at least helped shore up the center. Hakan Balta lasted only quarter of an hour more: having struggled desperately to match Torres for pace he was replaced at halftime by Semih Kaya. He too struggled, though, and it took a fine save from Muslera to deny Torres after he'd muscled through.

WAHL: Sneijder believes in Galatasaray's chances vs. Chelsea, Mourinho

"In the first half the game was our game and we had chances to kill the game," Mourinho told Sky. "I'm not criticizing my striker, because my striker had a very good game, but overall when we got to counterattack situations we are missing the last pass, the last control the last choice: we had many chances to score the second goal and that would have changed completely the story of the game."

The more opportunities Chelsea wasted, the more the possibility of Galatasaray somehow sneaking back into the game grew. In the first half, its only real chance had been from a quickly taken throw-in, with Buruk Yilmaz putting the ball into the net only for the goal to be ruled out because an over-eager ballboy combined with some quick-thinking cynicism from John Terry led to there being two balls on the field.

But just after an hour, Galatasaray, from nowhere, began to look dangerous. First Selcuk Inan jabbed a shot against the post from about a yard after Didier Drogba had headed down a Wesley Sneijder cross. Then, after 64 minutes, Terry got under a Sneijder corner, Cech stayed mysteriously on his line and Aurelian Chedjou knocked in a goal reminiscent of the uncertainly that bedevilled Chelsea from set plays in November.

Mourinho admitted his frustration at the nature of the equalizer but his response was telling. Rather than chasing the game he brought on Mikel and closed it down: a 1-1 draw leaves his side as favorite to progress and given what has happened to the other Premier League sides, that is achievement enough.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.