Jose Mourinho clawed himself back from the brink of the sack as Chelsea swept into the Champions League last 16 with a 2-0 win over Porto on Wednesday.
Mourinho was in severe danger of being axed as Blues boss heading into a tie that would decide Chelsea’s Champions League fate.
But, needing a draw to reach the knockout stages and avoid the embarrassment of dropping into the Europa League, Mourinho’s side took full advantage of the stroke of luck that saw Ivan Marcano’s own goal gift them an early lead at Stamford Bridge.
Brazil winger Willian netted the second goal after the break to kill off Mourinho’s former club and ensure they finished top of the Group G.
After Saturday’s loss against Bournemouth condemned the Premier League champions to their latest humiliation in a dismal season, Roman Abramovich was reported to have told Mourinho only European progress would save him.
And the sight of the Russian billionaire with a broad smile on his face following Willian’s strike suggested Mourinho has quelled the crisis talk and bought at least a little time to get Chelsea’s domestic form back on track.
Dynamo Kiev’s 1-0 win over Maccabi Tel Aviv meant Porto dropped to third place and were condemned to the Europa League.
“The players were really committed to get a result, as much for their pride. They didn’t want to go to the Europa League,” Mourinho said.
“Luck is part of the game and in the Premier League we have been unlucky. This was an important result for the players and the club.”
Mourinho made a host of changes after the Bournemouth defeat, with Diego Costa returning up front despite his recent touchline spat with the Blues boss at Tottenham.
Captain John Terry was back from injury and Ramires started in midfield in place of the underachieving Cesc Fabregas.
If Mourinho was looking for reassurance that his alterations would pay dividends, he must have been alarmed by the careless way Chelsea squandered possession on the edge of their own penalty area, allowing Yacine Brahimi space to fire in a cross-shot that Thibaut Courtois had to punch away at his near post.
Desperately in need of an early goal that might sooth his players’ frayed nerves, Mourinho benefitted from a moment of extreme good fortune in the 12th minute.
Eden Hazard’s pass sent Costa galloping clear and, faced with Iker Casillas sprinting off his line, he tried a low shot that the Porto goalkeeper blocked.
That was where lady luck took over as the ball cannoned back off Marcano’s chest and across the line despite Bruno Martins Indi’s attempt to clear.
Even that moment of redemption couldn’t subdue the devil in Costa and the notoriously temperamental Spain striker earned a booking for needlessly flicking his boot towards Casillas.
Yet although Chelsea were still some way short of peak form, holding onto a lead has always been a Mourinho speciality.
The Blues, superbly marshalled by Terry, were careful not to leave themselves vulnerable at the back.
Despite the cautious approach, Oscar almost doubled Chelsea’s lead when his strike deflected just wide, while Costa also threatened on the stroke of half-time.
News that Dynamo were leading left Porto with no option but to throw caution to wind.
That commitment to attack left them exposed at the back and Willian should have taken advantage when he ran onto Costa’s pass and drilled straight at Casillas.
Willian had no need to rue the miss as he made amends in the 52nd minute.
Costa’s header found Hazard 20 yards from goal and he slipped a precise pass towards Willian, who drilled a superb first-time strike that beat Casillas at his near post.
It was a huge relief for Mourinho and even the usually restrained Abramovich was on his feet grinning and exchanging back slaps with his entourage.
Costa wasted a series of chances to put extra gloss on the scoreline, but for once Mourinho had no need to reproach the striker and instead ended a night of rare satisfaction being serenaded by his loyal fans.