Romanian league leaders Steaua Bucharest scored a memorable 1-0 victory over European champions Chelsea that gives them a real chance of making it through to the last eight of the Europa League.
In a first leg of few chances at the National Arena in Bucharest, the only goal of the game came through Raul Rusescu’s first-half penalty after the striker had been fouled in the box by Ryan Bertrand. Having fallen behind, the visitors failed to do nearly enough to warrant an equalizer against an organized Steaua side.
Chelsea boss Rafael Benitez fielded a strong side, featuring the likes of John Terry and Frank Lampard, with Juan Mata the only notable absentee. But it is Laurentiu Reghecampf’s men who will now travel to Stamford Bridge next week full of confidence that they can cause a massive upset.
Despite a packed and raucous crowd in the National Arena it was a subdued beginning to the action on the pitch. The home side were having a good share of possession but rarely threatening the Chelsea goal. The opening half-an-hour went by without a single shot on target for either side.
But with 32 minutes on the clock, the atmosphere ratcheted up another level. Iasmin Latovlevici came forward from left back and put in an outstanding cross with the outside of his left boot that Rusescu looked set to meet with his head for a clear chance six yards out. But the Romania international was dragged down by Ryan Bertrand and the referee duly awarded a penalty. Given the situation, the full back, playing in place of Ashley Cole, was perhaps lucky to escape with just a booking.
Rusescu, who has 18 league goals this season, stepped up himself and drilled the ball with just enough power to beat the dive of Petr Cech for his fourth Europa League goal of the campaign.
Chelsea looked to come straight back and grab a potentially vital away goal before the break. Yossi Benayoun should have done better having found a clear sight of goal following a neat interchange with Eden Hazard, but the Israeli scuffed a shot that was saved low by Ciprian Tatarusanu.
Fernando Torres, an automatic starter in the Europa League due to Demba Ba being cup-tied, continued his struggles leading the line. The goal-shy striker embarrassingly knocked the ball off himself when in a good position down the right before doing better toward the close of the half as his shot from an angle was parried away.
An increase in impetus might have been expected by Chelsea after the break, but it was the home side that came out in the ascendency.
Steaua were still unable to create clear openings, although Cristian Tanase might have done better with several shots from the edge of the box that missed the target.
Predictably as the half wore on and with the introduction of Juan Mata and Marko Marin, the visitors looked to increase the pressure. Yet, with the home crowd booing and whistling their every touch, Chelsea failed carve out any real openings against the Steaua’s resolute defense.
With Benitez looking on in anguish, Chelsea’s clearest openings came as Eden Hazard was unable to keep his shot down from a difficult angle and Marin’s near-post effort was repelled by Tatarusanu.