London, Dec 7: Didier Drogba swept Chelsea into the knockout phase of the Champions League on Tuesday, his bulldozing display producing two goals in a 3-0 victory over Valencia that secured first place in Group E.
He was back to his fearsome best at Stamford Bridge, setting Chelsea on the way with the opening goal in the third minute and wrapping up victory with his well-taken second in the 76th.
The brace took his tally in Europe's elite competition to 36 goals.
Drogba also set up midfielder Ramires for Chelsea's crucial second goal in the 22nd as the hosts sealed progress into the last 16 for a ninth straight year, leapfrogging Bayer Leverkusen on the final matchday after the German team drew 1-1 at Genk.
Valencia, which needed a win or a score draw to go through, was allowed to dominate possession after Ramires' goal but couldn't penetrate Chelsea's packed defense.
The Spanish team had to be content with third place in the group and a spot in the Europa League.
Chelsea's victory came against a backdrop of criticism of the team's recent displays, in Europe and in the English Premier League, and manager Andre Villas-Boas was delighted to see his players deliver an impressive performance when the pressure was on.
“In terms of the result and us finishing top, it's fantastic. It's against all the odds,” Villas-Boas said. “It's gratifying for the team. Today is a win of human values, team spirit, strength of character, ability to take criticism.
“They deserve respect that they don't get. We have been continually chased by different kinds of people and pressure. Maybe we gave everyone a slap in the face.”
Villas-Boas also spoke of “a continued persecution” of Chelsea's players and “a continued aggressiveness towards one club,” claiming English rival Manchester City hasn't received the same criticism even though it is likely to fail to reach the last 16 on Wednesday.
Having qualified for at least the semifinals of the competition in five of the past eight seasons, Chelsea is rightly regarded as a Champions League heavyweight.
But picking up just two points from three away games had left its qualification hopes hanging in the balance for the first time.
Drogba eased any fears, though, with an inspired display that justified his continued selection ahead of record-signing Fernando Torres and revived memories of his destructive performances of a few years ago.
“Normally a striker gets confidence from scoring like that and he's on a good run,” Villas-Boas said.
“As long as he continues performing for the team, that's perfect.”
Collecting a short inside pass from Juan Mata—who joined Chelsea from Valencia for 30 million pounds (then $43 million) in the offseason—Drogba put the home side ahead by turning Antonio Barragan and driving in a left-footed shot that goalkeeper Diego Alves got a hand to but couldn't keep out.
It was Chelsea's quickest ever goal in the competition.
Jordi Alba came close to an immediate equalizer, smashing a shot against the post in the fifth minute, but the visitors were left with too much to do when Ramires scored.
Picking the ball up in his own half, Drogba spun past his marker and powered forward before slipping a pass through to the advancing Ramires.
Victor Ruiz's weak attempt to hold off the Brazilian failed dismally, and Ramires ghosted in to slip home a low left-footed finish in at the near post.
From that moment, Chelsea was happy to concede possession and soak up Valencia's attacks.
The Spanish side, third in La Liga after an impressive run of five wins in six matches, finished with 66 percent possession but not the result it needed.
“The game could've changed if we had scored the first goal,” Valencia coach Unai Emery. “Conceding early made it very difficult for us.”
The closest Valencia came to halving the deficit came when midfielder Sofiane Feghouli's fizzing left-footed effort was tipped aside by Cech in the 63rd and it was left to the ubiquitous Drogba to apply the killer blow.
Racing onto Mata's throughball, Drogba was first to the ball ahead of Adil Rami and he slotted home a low finish into the corner.
“We made changes to the way we played,” Villas-Boas said. “We gave Valencia the initiative—their possession (statistics) was tremendous—but they couldn't find the correct spaces and left us gaps to exploit.”
The crowd afforded Drogba a standing ovation and rousing applause as he came off for Torres moments later, receiving a handshake and a pat on the back from Villas-Boas.
Torres should be prepared to start more matches on the bench on this evidence.