Kalou gives Chelsea ‘terrific’ chance of making semi-finals
Roberto di Matteo’s ‘gamble’ to play Kalou instead of Didier Drogba pays off at Benfica
Benfica 0 Chelsea 1. A late goal from Salomon Kalou gave the Blues a priceless advantage in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Benfica. The Ivorian striker converted a cross from Fernando Torres on 75 minutes as Chelsea put their patchy Premier League form behind them to take a big step towards a semi-final spot.
Kalou was one of the several surprises in Roberto di Matteo’s team selection for the trip to Benfica as he turned to those players with experience of playing in Portugal. The Chelsea caretaker manager opted to leave Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien on the bench, and give starts to Kalou, Raul Meireles and Paulo Ferreira, who was making his first start of the year for the London club at right-back.
The strategy was soon paying dividends as Benfica – who had held Manchester United to two draws in their group matches – struggled to create any real chances on the Chelsea goal. The visitors, meanwhile, were looking comfortable and just before half-time Meireles gave Benfica keeper Artur his first test of the night with a fierce low shot.
The second half produced chances at either end with David Luiz clearing a volley from Oscar Cardozo off the line and Kalou heading over the bar from point-blank range. But the Ivory Coast striker wasn’t so profligate the second time round when Fernando Torres – impressive throughout – teed him up for the winning goal.
"It's terrific, you couldn't have hoped for a better result," said a delighted Di Matteo afterwards. "For 90 minutes we had to run, challenge and win tackles. It was important that we selected a team that had the energy to be competitive."
Asked why he had gambled on starting with Kalou in preference to Drogba, Di Matteo replied: "I didn't think it was a gamble, but sometimes in life you have to take a little risk. He's come into the team after a long spell out - he got the goal and had a great game."
The defeat was Benfica’s first in 11 European matches and puts Chelsea in an enviable position going into the second leg at Stamford Bridge on 4 April. Nonetheless Di Matteo cautioned Chelsea’s fans and players not to get carried away. "We haven't qualified yet," he said. "It's dangerous to think we're through ... we've put ourselves in a good position, but it's not a result you can rely on for the home game."
In the night’s other Champions League quarter-final, Real Madrid despatched Apoel Nicosia 3-0 in Cyprus to all but ensure their progress to the last four. A brace from French striker Karim Benzema and a wonderful goal from Kaka gave a gloss to the scoreline that the Spanish side didn’t deserve.