Chelsea made a spluttering start to their Champions League campaign as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s second-half equaliser earned Schalke a surprise 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
Jose Mourinho’s side had been in dominant mood in the early weeks of the season and they looked well in control of their Group G opener after an early strike from Spain midfielder Cesc Fabregas.
But Fabregas’s first goal for Chelsea since his £27 million ($44 million) pre-season move from Barcelona was the prelude to a frustrating evening for the Blues, who wasted a string of chances to finish off Schalke and were made to pay when Huntelaar fired home to give the Germans the point their perseverance deserved.
The Premier League leaders will still expect to qualify from a group also including Sporting Lisbon and Maribor, but this was hardly the kind of ruthless performance required to go one step further than last season’s semi-final appearance.
Fuelled by the predatory finishing of Spain striker Diego Costa, who has scored seven times in four matches since arriving from Atletico Madrid, Mourinho’s men had reeled off four successive victories.
But despite Costa’s impressive form, Mourinho opted to rest the Brazil-born star and handed Didier Drogba his first start since his return to the Bridge.
Drogba’s last contribution for Chelsea in Europe was to score the decisive penalty in their dramatic win against Bayern Munich in the 2012 Champions League final.
But this turned out to be a night to forget for the Ivory Coast forward as he laboured for long periods and was unable to replicate Costa’s menacing displays.
Chelsea defeated Schalke both home and away in the Champions League group stage last season and it wasn’t long before Jens Keller’s men were in trouble again as the Blues took the lead in controversial fashion in the 11th minute.
Stretching to win possession, Fabregas lunged in on Max Meyer, missing the ball and leaving the Schalke midfielder writhing in agony.
With furious Schalke appealing for the foul, Croatian referee Ivan Bebek instead waved play on and Fabregas sprinted to receive a clever back-flicked pass from Eden Hazard in the area before guiding a cool finish past Ralf Faehrmann.
Fabregas should have doubled Chelsea’s lead before half-time when he lofted a pass to Branislav Ivanovic and surged onto the return ball, only to miscue his left-footed shot over the bar.
Schalke gradually came into the match and Ghana midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng lashed in a fierce long-range effort that brought a fine save from Thibaut Courtois.
The visitors came even closer to equalising on the stroke of half-time when Julian Draxler’s impressive acceleration took him past Ivanovic and Gary Cahill and into the area where he drilled a low shot just past the far post with only Courtois to beat.
Ivanovic was denied by Faehrmann from an acute angle as the hosts pressed for the killer second goal after the interval.
There was more frustration for Chelsea when Drogba muscled his way into a dangerous position from Hazard’s pass, but then clipped his shot wide.
And Schalke made Mourinho’s side pay for their profligacy in the 62nd minute.
In a reversal of Chelsea’s goal, Fabregas was dispossessed after a possible foul from Huntelaar, whose pass released Draxler to launch a rapid counter-attack that ended with Dutch striker Huntelaar planting a clinical low strike past Courtois to stun the Bridge into silence.
Mourinho called for the cavalry, sending on Costa and Loic Remy for the final 18 minutes.
Remy went close to bagging the winner, but the France striker’s shot was headed off the line by Roman Neustaedter.
That set the stage for a tense finale as Chelsea poured forward, but Hazard shot over and then saw his poked effort blocked by Faehrmann.