A team with no sense of direction or guile for the vast majority of this match, Chelsea were saved by the fact that Benfica, their hosts, were no better.
Yet Chelsea will not care. Thanks to Salomon Kalou making the most of fine work by Fernando Torres 15 minutes from time, they will take a slender lead back to Stamford Bridge for the return leg, and should not be overly concerned by Benfica as an attacking force on this evidence.
Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo was delighted after his “risk” in starting Kalou paid dividends.
“He’s come into the team after a long spell out, he got the goal and had a great game,” said Di Matteo.
“I didn’t think it was a gamble but sometimes in life you have to take a little risk.
“With the fact we are playing all these games, it was important to select a team that had the energy for a high-tempo game. It’s terrific, we couldn’t have hoped for a better result.”
Kalou added: “It’s a good result, the away goal is very important.”
Di Matteo had put his faith in the old guard when they faced Napoli in the last 16, calling on Didier Drogba, Lampard and Michael Essien to overcome a 3-1 first leg deficit.
Their reward for getting Chelsea this far? Places on the bench, replaced by Torres, Raul Meireles and John Obi Mikel, while Kalou came in for Daniel Sturridge.
Yet what was an even greater shock was that Paulo Ferreira was brought in for just his third start of the season in place of the injured Branislav Ivanovic.
The decisions were reminiscent of when Andre Villas-Boas went for a similar approach in the first leg in Naples, which ended with such drastic consequences for both the team and the Portuguese himself. And there appeared to be a nervousness about Chelsea from the off. Ferreira swung wildly when Oscar Cardozo headed a dangerous free-kick back across goal, and the latter missed a fine chance when he controlled Bruno Cesar’s crossfield ball superbly, only to shoot wide from a tight angle.
Torres, meanwhile, was showing flashes of form, without any end product. Superb control on the chest ended with a swivelled effort flying well over the bar; a strong run led only to him cutting back twice before shooting past the far post.
Yet in truth there was astonishingly little quality on show from either side. And the first meaningful save took a full 40 minutes to arrive, although when it did it was a fine one as Artur plunged low to his left to keep out Meireles’ stinging drive.
Chelsea should have hit the front after 53 minutes, only for Kalou to head wastefully over the bar from Torres’ fine cross. It was a poor miss.
Yet that was nothing compared with what was to follow. In keeping with Chelsea’s play, it would have been an assist for their goalkeeper, Petr Cech, as Torres and Luisao contrived to misjudge his clearance, allowing Mata a clear run on goal. The Spaniard rounded Artur but could only hit the side of the post from a narrow angle.
Axel Witsel nearly made them pay with a drive that looped off John Terry and onto the roof of the net as Benfica finally showed some urgency. They came closer still when Nicolas Gaitan’s cross found the waiting Jardel at the back post, only for the centre-back’s header to be repelled by Cech.
Yet Chelsea had the last laugh as Torres made ground down the right and crossed for Kalou to score.
BENFICA: Artur Moraes 7, Maxi Pereira 6, Luisao 6, Jardel 6, Emerson 5, Aimar 7 (Matic, 70), Javi Garcia 5 (Nolito 81), Bruno Cesar 6 (Rodrigo, 70), Witsel 5, Gaitan 6, Cardozo 6.
CHELSEA: Cech 7, Ferreira 7, (Bosingwa 80) Luiz 7, Terry 7, Cole 7, Ramires 8, Meireles 5 (Lampard, 68), Mata 6, Mikel 6, Kalou 6 (Sturridge 82), Torres 7.
Referee: Paolo Tagliavento (Italy).