Despite losing home and away to FC Basel 1893, Chelsea FC finished the group stage in a very familiar position: top of the pile for the eighth time in 11 campaigns.
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The start of their 2013/14 UEFA Champions League campaign did not go to plan and there was another sizeable hiccup along the way but, in the end, Chelsea FC did what they invariably do: namely win the group with something to spare. It was the tenth time in 11 seasons they have qualified for the knockout rounds – last year being the only blip – and the eighth time in that period they finished top of the section.
Story so far
The return of José Mourinho encouraged anticipation that Chelsea could repeat their triumph of 2012. The manager, a two-time UEFA Champions League winner with FC Porto (2004) and FC Internazionale Milano (2010), was bidding to become the first coach to lift the European Cup with three different teams.
But all the hype was rendered worthless on matchday one by FC Basel 1893, who went behind to Oscar's goal just before half-time but responded with late efforts from Mohamed Salah and Marco Streller to inflict Chelsea's first group stage home defeat since 1 October 2003 – a run of 29 games in which they had won 22 and drawn seven.
Basel went on to do the double over Chelsea, yet all four other fixtures went the way of Mourinho's men. They scored 11 times without reply in winning 4-0 away to FC Steaua București and 3-0 home and away against FC Schalke 04, who came second, two points behind the Londoners. With qualification already assured, Chelsea then beat Steaua 1-0 to clinch the group.
While Chelsea had got back on track with the victory in Bucharest, matchday three presented an awkward proposition in the shape of a Schalke side who had seized the early leadership in the section. It was reckoned to be a tight contest that would decide who would be top dog, yet it ended in a convincing Chelsea triumph, their nerves settled by Fernando Torres's fifth-minute strike. The forward went on to mark his 100th Chelsea appearance with a second goal.
Key player: Squad depth
No real outstanding performer – Eden Hazard, Oscar and André Schürrle have all sparkled intermittently – so the depth of Mourinho's squad deserves to be highlighted in this category. The manager spent the first five months of his return to Stamford Bridge swapping and changing players in an attempt to find his best XI, using 21 players in the six fixtures – only Ryan Bertrand (injured) and number three goalkeeper Jamal Blackman missed out. It has been a real team effort.
Rising star: Oscar
Oscar made a big impact last term with two goals on his UEFA Champions League debut against Juventus and another three strikes to end as Chelsea's leading marksman. He has gone on to embellish his reputation with some dazzling football in 2013/14, scoring once more and providing three assists. At 22 he is going to decorate this stage for years to come.
The number of UEFA Champions League goals Oscar had notched in only seven appearances in the competition when he put the Blues ahead against Basel on matchday one. An impressive haul for a creative midfielder.
"The profile of the team is different to when I was here before. The older players are at the best stage of their careers. At the same time, we have a lot of youngsters in the creative areas of the pitch. We used to be physically very strong, but things are different now. We have to play a different kind of football with a different philosophy. I am building a new side and it's very enjoyable."
Mourinho compares the current Chelsea team with the one he created first time round.
Next challenge: Galatasaray AŞ
(Away: 26 February, home: 18 March)
The build-up to both these games will be all about one man: Didier Drogba. The Ivory Coast striker's status as a Chelsea great was cemented long before he equalised against FC Bayern München in the 2012 final and then converted the decisive penalty in the shoot-out – his farewell match for the west London club after 340 previous appearances and 156 goals. Now in Galatasaray colours following a short stint in the Chinese Super League, Chelsea's all-time top scorer in European competition is guaranteed a hero's welcome when he revisits Stamford Bridge in mid-March.