Qualification for the Champions League knockout stages remains in our hands after an entertaining European encounter ended level in Valencia.
It was often frenetic, occasionally fraught, but eventually fine for Frank Lampard and his Blues. The boss had said we couldn’t afford to lose, and the final scoreline of 2-2 means victory against Lille at the Bridge in a fortnight will guarantee our place in the round of 16.
On a mild evening on the Mediterranean, it was Valencia who struck the first blow through Carlos Soler five minutes before the break. Sixty seconds later we equalised as Mateo Kovacic ended his long wait for a goal with a fine finish from outside the box.
Christian Pulisic put us ahead early in the second half with a close-range strike eventually ratified by VAR. The open nature of the contest continued unabated, and when Jorginho was adjudged to have committed a foul in the box, Valencia had a penalty. Kepa produced a magnificent save, tipping Daniel Parejo’s spot-kick wide, but there was nothing he could when Daniel Wass’s cross-shot from near the right flank dipped over him and in off the post with eight minutes left.
There were further chances as both ends, the best falling to Rodrigo in the sixth minute of injury time, but he shot wide to leave Chelsea the more satisfied after another thrilling European contest, and our 10th unbeaten away from home on the continent.
The big news before kick-off was the selection of Andreas Christensen and Reece James in defence, with Cesar Azpilicueta shuffled across to left-back. It was the first time since the win over Brighton in late September, when the Dane started, that the Zouma-Tomori centre-back axis had been broken up in either the Premier League or in Europe.
Chelsea started superbly and could have been rewarded with the opening goal inside two minutes, but Willian was unable to control his far-post header from James’s vicious cross that skidded off the turf.
Further inviting crosses from Azpilicueta and then James were beyond a blue shirt, as was a deeper Jorginho pass that had Pulisic interested. When a near-post James delivery was met by Abraham, the striker, stretching, couldn’t direct his volley on target.
We certainly hadn’t struggled to stamp our authority on proceedings, but with 19 minutes gone we were given an extraordinary reprieve. A cute ball from midfield released Rodrigo in plenty of space, and the square pass to his strike partner Maxi Gomez that followed felt like an assist in waiting. Gomez got his legs in a tangle, though, and completely missed the ball with an open goal to aim at.
Now Valencia were on top, and with the home support enlivened Gomez headed a much harder chance straight at Kepa.
Our keeper had to be at his best to keep out Gomez again on the half-hour. Rodrigo’s pass rolled beyond Ferran Torres’s reach but through to the unmarked Gomez, whose clipped finish hit Kepa’s body and went wide.
By now it was our turn to operate on the break. Kante led one counter but couldn’t find the final pass, and then yet another James cross deflected into his path. This time the shot was over.
A madcap couple of minutes ensued. First Abraham’s instinctive volley was somehow kept out by Jasper Cillessen high to his left, with the striker unable to hide his disbelief he hadn't scored his second Champions League goal.
Cillessen would soon be picking the ball out of his net, but not before Valencia had taken the lead.
Torres picked up the pieces from a goal-kick and found Rodrigo on the right flank. This time his delivery was rewarded, Soler the man making a late run into the box unnoticed and volleying awkwardly beyond Kepa, who was beaten for power from close range.
Valencia’s advantage lasted 60 seconds. Again it was a wide delivery causing problems, with the home defence unable to fully clear Azpilicueta’s cross. As he has been so adept at doing of late, Kovacic snaffled up the loose ball. The pinpoint 20-yard finish that followed was not that of a man who hadn’t scored since January 2017.
It was his first goal for Chelsea on the occasion of his 71st appearance. He thought he barely had to wait a couple minutes more for his second strike in blue, but Cillessen dived to parry behind after Pulisic had wriggled free from a congested midfield and driven at the retreating defence.
On the stroke of half-time, Abraham fell awkwardly after contesting an aerial challenge. He would not emerge after the interval, Michy Batshuayi the man introduced against his former club.
Again Chelsea started a half well. The Belgian had a shot blocked on the turn and from the resulting corner, Kante swung a cross over that Zouma challenged for, under pressure from a defender. The ball bounced goalwards and Pulisic was quickest to react, poking between Cillessen’s legs.
The assistant referee flagged for offside, and initial replays made it look like that was the correct decision, but after a lengthy VAR check the goal was given.
It looked like our lead would be short-lived when a long Parejo pass caused uncertainty in our backline. Kepa raced out of his goal, Christensen got a touch on it while he could, and the ball landed at Rodrigo’s feet. His chip cleared Kepa but also the crossbar.
Following our second goal, the home players and fans had continued to get on the ref’s back, but they were grateful he erred in their favour when Jorginho and Jose Gaya came together in the box midway through the half.
Parejo struck the penalty well but Kepa guessed correctly and superbly clawed it away with a high right hand.
In response to constant Valencia pressure, Lampard sent on Emerson for Jorginho – who had escaped a second booking in the penalty incident – and switched to three at the back. It was the Italian international’s first appearance in the competition.
Valencia held the initiative, with the Blues threatening on the break, but it still needed a slice of good fortune for the Spanish to level with eight minutes left. Daniel Wass fired in what looked like an overhit cross from the right wing, but it fizzed over Kepa and rebounded off the inside of the post into the net.
In response, Zouma headed a corner downwards which was cleared off the line, and Valencia broke dangerously. Thankfully Kovacic tracked his man and took the sting out of the shot.
Batshuayi had a low effort deflected and saved by the feet of Cillessen as we attempted to finish the contest once and for all, but back Valencia came, encouraged by seven minutes of added time.
We were still committing men forward and from one break, Rodrigo stepped inside Zouma and curled wide. The striker then had a golden chance to put Valencia through and us on the brink, but he somehow missed from a couple of yards wide as a low cross was allowed to reach him at the far post.
It was an almighty escape, and when the final whistle sounded a minute later, players from both sides collapsed to the ground. Everyone had given it their all, and in the end it was those in a blue shirt who trudged off the pitch the happier.
A massive European night at the Bridge beckons on Tuesday 10 December.
Chelsea (4-3-3): Kepa, James, Christensen, Zouma, Azpilicueta (c), Kante, Jorginho (Emerson 72), Kovacic, Willian (Mount 80), Abraham (Batshuayi h/t), Pulisic.Scorers Kovacic 41, Pulisic 50Booked Jorginho 7, Azpilicueta 55, Kante 73, Kepa 78Unused subs Caballero, Tomori, Pedro, Giroud
Valencia (4-4-2) Cillessen; Costa (Gameiro 67), Garay, Gabriel, Gaya; Torres (Coquelin 74), Parejo (c), Wass, Soler (Lee 78); Rodrigo, Gomez.Unused subs Domenech, Correia, Mangala, Vallejo.Scorers Soler 40, Wass 82Booked Wass 32, Garay 54, Gabriel 87
Referee Felix ZwayerCrowd 43,486