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Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011

Drogba keeps Chelsea alive

Striker leads Blues past Valencia, into Champions League last 16


LONDON — With Chelsea's Champions League progress secured with a ruthless victory over Valencia, Andre Villas-Boas had the confidence — after weeks of pent-up frustration — to take on his critics.

News photo
Survival of the fittest: Chelsea's Didier Drogba goes for the ball as Valencia's David Albelda watches during the Blues' 3-0 Champions League win at Stamford Bridge in London on Tuesday. AP

The manager declared that his players had delivered a "slap in the face" to their detractors with a 3-0 win over Valencia on Tuesday that sent Chelsea through to the knockout round as the Group E winner.

"(There) is a continuous persecution of Chelsea, an aggressiveness towards one club," Villas-Boas said. "But today you have to accept it was a brilliant win."

Woeful away form had left a place among Europe's elite in jeopardy, but Chelsea rediscovered its attacking flair just when it mattered most.

Didier Drogba netted after just three minutes, set up Ramires' 22nd-minute goal and then rounded off the victory in the second half.

"We finished top of the group against all odds," said Villas-Boas, who was hired in the offseason following a four-trophy haul last year at FC Porto. "There has been a lot of criticism of our players and they gave everyone a slap in the face."

The victory knocked Bayer Leverkusen off top spot, with the German club clinching second place with a 1-1 draw at Racing Genk.

The drama of the night came at Borussia Dortmund, with Marseille scoring twice in the closing minutes to win 3-2 and advance as Group F runnerup.

"Football is magnificent when you win," Marseille coach Didier Deschamps said. "You have to believe until the end. What we did was exceptional."

Olympiakos was denied second place in Group F despite beating group winner Arsenal 3-1.

Zenit St. Petersburg reached the last 16 with Group G winner APOEL at the expense of Porto after drawing 0-0 in Portugal.

The final knockout phase places will be determined when the group stage concludes on Wednesday, with Manchester rivals United and City the highest-profile clubs with qualification on the line.

Chelsea, though, can relax — for now — and focus on catching United and City in the Premier League from fourth.

For the ninth successive season, the Blues are in the knockout phase of the competition owner Roman Abramovich desperately wants to win.

Any nerves the Russian oligarch had about his team's prospects were eased inside three minutes at Stamford Bridge with a goal — Chelsea's fastest in the competition — that set the tone for a night of dominance.

Daniel Sturridge, who has displaced record-signing Fernando Torres from the side, switched the ball from the right to left flank. Former Valencia winger Juan Mata then squared to Drogba, who turned Antonio Barragan and fired beyond goalkeeper Diego Alves.

The lead was doubled when Drogba picked up possession inside his own half and charged forward before sending the ball through to Ramires, who swept past Victor Ruiz before striking into the net.

Drogba's 36th Champions League goal came in the 76th, racing onto Mata's through ball and slotting a low finish into the corner.

"I'm improving since the last few games," Drogba said. "I've managed to have more time on the pitch and it's helping me a lot."

Bayer Leverkusen dropped to second in the group, requiring Eren Derdiyok's late equalizer to cancel out Jelle Vossen's 30th-minute volley for Genk, which had already been eliminated.

In Dortmund, Marseille looked consigned to a spot in the Europa League in February before staging the late and unlikely comeback.

Dortmund was 2-0 up inside 32 minutes after goals from Jakub Blaszczykowski and Mats Hummels, but Loic Remy headed one back for Marseille just before half time.

But it wasn't until the 85th that Andre Ayew equalized and substitute Mathieu Valbuena then grabbed a winner two minutes later.

That denied Olympiakos the chance to remain in the competition despite Rafik Djebbour, David Fuster and Francois Modesto clinching a memorable 3-1 win over Arsenal, whose goal came from Yossi Benayoun's volley.

In Group G, two-time European champion Porto needed a win to advance, but will have to settle with a spot in the Europa League it won under Villas-Boas last season.

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