By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) - Chelsea virtually guaranteed their place in the knockout rounds of the Champions League after weathering an early storm to beat Schalke 04 3-0 and take a commanding lead in Group E at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.
Schalke started the brighter, but the match tipped Chelsea's way when Samuel Eto'o pounced to score after 31 minutes when goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand took too long to clear, allowing Eto'o to stick a boot in the way of the ball, which shot past the keeper and into the net.
Eto'o made it 2-0 in the 54th minute with a well-taken goal after a swift break and a neat final pass from Willian. Substitute Demba Ba made it 3-0 with a mis-hit volley in the 83rd minute.
Although Schalke continued to search for a goal after going two behind, they lost much of their impetus when their most dangerous player, Julian Draxler, was replaced after an hour with a knock.
The result puts Chelsea clear at the top of Group E with nine points, three ahead of second-placed Schalke.
The Bundesliga side, beaten 3-0 at home by Chelsea two weeks ago, could have been three goals clear after 15 minutes at the Bridge, with Draxler and Adam Szalai both going close with fierce low drives that sped just wide of Petr Cech's goal.
Christian Fuchs also curled a shot just wide of the other post, and for much of the opening 30 minutes Chelsea were second best.
Coach Jose Mourinho made six changes, one because of injury, after his side's tepid performance in their 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United on Saturday, and it was the one that was forced on him that went rewarded.
Eto'o was called in to replace the injured Fernando Torres, and it was the old warhorse who made all the difference with the two opening goals, giving Chelsea their third win in the group after losing their opening match at home to Basel in September.
Despite their team's defeat, the Schalke fans cheered and sung throughout the 90 minutes, bringing much-needed colour and life to an otherwise largely forgettable and routine group win for the home side.
(Editing by Stephen Wood)