Nemanja Matic’s first-half header was enough for Chelsea to record a first victory of Champions League Group G, but it should have been so much more comfortable than a 1-0 win at Sporting.
The Estadio Jose Alvalade, where Blues boss Jose Mourinho spent 18 months from 1992 as assistant to Bobby Robson, was vibrant on Sporting’s first home clash among Europe’s elite in five years. Chelsea captain John Terry was relieved though after his side clung on despite missing chances.
“We had so many chances, it was one of those nights where it just didn’t go but thankfully ’Mati’ came up with a good header,” said Terry.
In arguably the toughest assignment of the group, Chelsea should have been 2-0 up inside the opening 22 minutes.
Diego Costa, selected despite his fragile hamstrings, erred in a one on one as Rui Patricio saved after two minutes and 20 minutes later, Andre Schurrle missed an easy chance.
It was one of a number of opportunities spurned by the German as the Premier League’s top scorers were having an off night. That was until Matic, booed on account of his spell with Sporting’s rivals Benfica, headed Chelsea into a 34th-minute lead from Cesc Fabregas’ free-kick.
On Mourinho’s first return to his native Portugal since guiding Chelsea to a last-16 draw at Porto in February 2007, Costa started up front, as promised. Costa scored his eighth goal in six Premier League games against Aston Villa, but was unable to notch his first European goal for Chelsea after being played in by Oscar.
The Spain striker curved his run to stay onside and beat a leaden-footed Sporting defence, but his languid finish was stopped by the feet of Patricio.
Schurrle returned to the starting line-up despite his wastefulness against Bolton last Wednesday and he again floundered in front of goal against a disorganised Sporting defence. He miscontrolled Eden Hazard’s pass and was then unable to round Patricio.
Sporting barely threatened as Courtois held Islam Slimani’s header from Jonathan Silva’s left-wing cross.
Chelsea broke quickly and Schurrle, again, leapt to head Hazard’s cross at Patricio before the German forced the keeper to save. Schurrle’s third chance in the space of as many minutes was the most simple, but he scuffed Hazard’s cross wide.
Matic did not pass up the opportunity when, unmarked, he met Fabregas’ set-piece at the back post and looped a header over Patricio.
Chelsea were in control, but there was a moment of alarm as Adrien Silva had a shot blocked by Cahill, with the vocal locals appealing for a penalty.
The best and worst of Nani was on display when he led a counter-attack, but hit a blank when he flicked the ball into space behind him, with no team-mate present.
Chelsea continued to dominate, looked to hit their hosts on the counter and Costa was felled cynically by Mauricio as he bore down on goal. The Sporting defender was booked.
John Obi Mikel, on for Oscar, blasted over and Costa fired into the side-netting from an acute angle. Still a second was elusive, but so was a Sporting shot to test Courtois.
Patricio reacted swiftly to deny Costa a shooting chance before Mohamed Salah, on for Hazard, was unable to reach Luis’ dangerous cross.
Chelsea were left clinging to their single-goal advantage as the Egypt winger was denied by Patricio, with Nani shooting just over and substitute Fredy Montero heading wide as Sporting twice went close, but not close enough, to an equaliser.
SPORTING: Rui Patricio, Mauricio (Paulo Oliveira 63), Sarr, Silva, Cedric Soares, William Carvalho, Joao Mario, Adrien Silva (Montero 81), Slimani, Carrillo (Diego Capel 81), Nani.
CHELSEA: Courtois, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Luis, Fabregas, Oscar (Mikel 71), Hazard (Salah 84), Matic, Schurrle (Willian 57), Costa.
Referee: Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz (Spain).