Hildebrand blunder leaves Chelsea in command
Chelsea shook an unexpected loss to Newcastle United out of their system by overcoming Schalke 3-0 on Wednesday to close on a place in the Champions League knockout phase.
The London club had seen a six-game winning run ended at St James' Park on Saturday, but they got back on track by reasserting their control of Champions League Group E with their 100th victory in UEFA competition.
Schalke goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand gifted Samuel Eto'o the opening goal with a dreadful error and the Chelsea striker claimed a second shortly after half-time before substitute Demba Ba added a late third.
It was a repeat of the scoreline from when the sides met in Gelsenkirchen two weeks ago and it left Jose Mourinho's side three points clear of Schalke at the top of the group with two matches to come.
"I think it was a good (response), but of course the first 15 minutes were difficult," said Mourinho. "We were a team without big maturity and stability after the defeat on Saturday. After that, we played very well and kept possession in a comfortable way and after the first goal we played well."
Chelsea can now qualify for the last 16 with a draw in their next match at Basel, whose 1-1 draw at home to Steaua Bucharest in the other group game took some of the sting out of defeat for Jens Keller's Schalke.
Mourinho had threatened to make "11 changes" after the 2-0 loss at Newcastle; in the end he restricted himself to six, with Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta, John Mikel Obi, Willian, Andre Schurrle and Eto'o coming in.
Schalke's squad has been ravaged by injury this season, but it was Chelsea who looked like a team of strangers in the opening stages as the Germans went close on three occasions.
Julian Draxler clipped a shot narrowly wide of the left-hand post from the edge of the box, with Adam Szalai and Christian Fuchs also threatening from distance.
Chelsea settled, however, and only a sinew-straining save from Hildebrand prevented Schurrle from breaking the deadlock with a venomous, dipping free-kick. Sadly for the German goalkeeper, his next contribution would prove far more memorable, and for all the wrong reasons.
The 34-year-old inexplicably took an age lining up a long kick, allowing Eto'o to ghost in from wide on the Chelsea left and block the ball the moment it left his foot, sending it rolling into the net.
It was Eto'o's first goal in the competition for Chelsea and he tested Hildebrand again before half-time with a volley that skidded off the turf.
There was an early warning for Chelsea in the second half, Petr Cech brilliantly palming a left-foot shot from Draxler around his right-hand post, but in the 54th minute the hosts extended their lead.
If Eto'o's first goal was fortuitous, his second was superb, with Willian stealing past Fuchs and squaring the ball to the Cameroonian, who finished with aplomb.
Hildebrand did his best to shrug off the taunts from the Chelsea fans behind his goal by saving from Schurrle, but Ba had the final say with an adroit left-foot volley from fellow substitute Frank Lampard's pass.
Chelsea are now assured of a place in the Europa League, the competition they won last season after a group-phase exit in the Champions League, but the chances of them having to defend their title seem remote.
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