Chelsea eventually made their numerical advantage count as they inflicted a 4-0 Champions League defeat on 10-man Maccabi Tel Aviv.
It was a tale of two centre-backs during the first-half at the Sammy Ofer Stadium where, after Gary Cahill showed fine anticipation to open the scoring, former Chelsea man Tal Ben Haim made the hosts’ task even steeper by kicking out at Diego Costa and being sent off on the stroke of the interval.
Despite their numerical disadvantage, Maccabi caused Chelsea some moments of discomfort as a tense Jose Mourinho saw his team’s early fluency desert them.
It was left to Willian, one of Chelsea’s star performers in their difficult campaign, to lift a customary free-kick over the defensive wall in the 73rd minute and beyond Predrag Rajkovic – the impressive Maccabi goalkeeper who was aggrieved to see Oscar net a powerful header from Baba Rahman’s cross four minutes later.
Oscar turned provider for Kurt Zouma, on for injured captain John Terry, to convert a stoppage-time corner to leave Chelsea with consecutive wins to their name for only the second time this season heading into Sunday’s Premier League London derby against Tottenham.
Dynamo Kiev’s 2-0 win at Porto means a three-way battle for qualification will be played out in the final round of group matches, with pointless Maccabi playing for pride.
Mourinho complained about the playing surface before the match and his team looked uncomfortable during the opening exchanges.
Tal Ben Haim II, the namesake of the home side’s soon-to-be villain, delivered a wonderful cross from the right in the second minute that Dor Peretz headed wastefully over from close range.
Oscar and Cesar Azpilicueta were two of four players recalled to Mourinho’s starting XI following the weekend win over Norwich City and they combined in the seventh minute – Oscar’s backheel side-footed over by the Spain full-back.
That set in motion a period of Chelsea dominance that was rewarded in the 20th minute.
Cahill rose highest to meet Willian’s corner and the centre-back reacted sharply after Rajkovic tipped his header onto the post to poke home.
Diego Costa fired an ambitious overhead-kick off target from Azpilicueta’s cross before being involved in the flashpoint that saw Maccabi’s most experienced campaigner lose his composure entirely.
Ben Haim missed with his initial kick at Costa but a second crude hack earned the defender a deserved red card.
The 10-men had a chance to level amid a scrappy start to the second-half – Eli Dasa racing in behind Chelsea left-back Rahman and forcing Asmir Begovic to save with his chest.
Mourinho displayed clear frustration on the touchline in response to that lapse and the hosts continued to cause unforeseen problems, with Peretz failing to get a decisive touch to Eran Zahavi’s 59th-minute free-kick.
Rajkovic produced two stunning reaction saves in quick succession to thwart Hazard and Azpilicueta before Maccabi sprung forward on the break and Begovic produced a similarly superb fingertip stop that denied Zahavi.
A wasteful pass from Hazard drew further ire from Mourinho, who sent on Pedro in place of the playmaker in the 69th minute and there was concern for the manager soon afterward when Terry left the field on a stretcher with an apparent foot problem.
Willian’s latest sumptuous dead-ball effort was enough to lift spirits in the visiting dugout and Rahman put an unsure display behind him to deliver a wonderful cross for Oscar to convert.
Zouma then headed home with comparable authority and the victory means Chelsea are level on 10 points with Porto ahead of welcoming the Portuguese giants to Stamford Bridge, with Kiev poised two points further back.