Match-winner Florent Malouda believes Chelsea FC's sheer strength of character was the key to their 2-1 comeback victory against MŠK Žilina on Tuesday.
Rattled by Babatounde Bello's 19th-minute strike for the Slovakian champions, a youthful Chelsea team needed to dig deep before Daniel Sturridge struck an equaliser early in the second half and Malouda steered in an 86th-minute clincher. Chelsea had already qualified for the last 16 on Matchday 4, but this fifth consecutive victory made Carlo Ancelotti's side the undisputed Group F winners.
Malouda had no doubt what lay behind their success at Stamford Bridge. "We conceded that early goal and had to come back in the game, but I think the key was the character and the way we changed our attitude on the pitch," the winger said. "And when we put more pressure on our opponents, it becomes more difficult for them."
That said, the French international made it clear the Blues had taken nothing for granted, despite their 4-1 win in Zilina in September. "Until you score the goals, you're always suffering against these kinds of teams. They were playing very well – a good passing game – and when they scored we knew it would be very difficult. But I think we had the character to come back in the game and to push."
It was a view shared by 21-year-old Sturridge, one of those to benefit from the fact Ancelotti could afford to rest first-team regulars. "Obviously, it's a shock to the system sometimes when we concede goals," the striker said. "
But the main thing for us is the reaction – if we react as we did today, especially in the second half, I'm sure we'll be OK in the future."
For Žilina, there were still positives to take out of a fifth straight defeat in the UEFA Champions League. They were in front against the 2008 finalists, produced a dramatic improvement on their previous 7-0 defeat by Olympique de Marseille, and only lost to a late goal. Forward Momodou Ceesay acknowledged: "It was a tough game for us. We were prepared for it, we were not going to lose as we did against Marseille – that was a big motivation for us."
Despite Malouda's heartbreaker, Ceesay saw reasons to be optimistic about Žilina's 8 December swansong against an FC Spartak Moskva side assured of third place and UEFA Europa League football. "We can watch tonight's game, see the best things we did and then hold on to that," he said. "In the last game, we don't want to play the whole competition without points, so we will go all out as we did here."
Bello echoed that view after scoring what he called "the biggest goal in my career" in Žilina's best performance of the campaign. "
To play in London against Chelsea and to lose 2-1 is a source of pride for us," said the striker. "The match I've played today gave me courage that I can still do many things in football. In the last match we'll do all we can."
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