(CNN) -- If competing in the Europa Leage for the first time since 2002 came as a culture shock to European champions Chelsea they didn't show it.
This time last year they were embarking on an adventure that would culminate in a first ever Champions League triumph but after falling in the group stages this season they find themselves battling it out in Europe's second tier club competition.
Roberto Di Matteo, who led them to victory over Bayern Munich in May 2012, has since departed, to be replaced by former Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez, who is yet to convince many supporters he's the right man for the job.
But Benitez's introduction of Brazilian midfielder Oscar proved a masterstroke as he scored with his first involvement after coming on with nine minutes remaining to hand Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Sparta Prague in the first leg of their last 32 tie.
Oscar played a one-two with Belgium international Eden Hazard and applied the finish to give Chelsea a crucial away goal.
Benitez told ESPN after the game: "It was difficult game, we started really well, in the first 20 minutes we were in control. We were under pressure in the last 20 minutes of the first half but changed things at half time and played well in the second half.
"Oscar made a difference but the team was better in the second half."
Fellow English club Liverpool didn't fare so well, suffering their second successive 2-0 defeat after being beaten by Zenit St Petersburg in Russia.
Two goals in two minutes turned the tie, Hulk -- a multi-million signing from Portuguese club Porto -- scoring a brilliant opener from range before Sergei Semak turned home a cross at the back post.
There had been fears before hand that some of Liverpool's players would be targeted by a section of Zenit's fans who posted a manifesto on their website that said an absence of black players in the club's squad was an "important tradition."
But after the game Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers told a press conference: "I want to thank the people of St Petersburg for their hospitality and how we've been received here."
On their defeat he said: "I thought we looked solid and a threat going forward and could have been in the lead at half-time.
"In 6 to 12 months' time, we won't be making those mistakes. This is part of our growing pains as a group. We have to be more clinical. But we gave away two poor goals tonight. We ended up losing the game when we should have won it."
Europa League holders Atletico Madrid face an uphill task to stay in the competition after being beaten 2-0 at home by Russian side Rubin Kazan.
Gokdeniz Karadeniz put the away side in front before Roman Sharonov was sent off just before half time, yet Rubin added a second in stoppage time through Pablo Orbaiz.
Czech side Viktoria Plzen recorded a shock 3-0 win at Napoli, who are currently second in the Italian league. Vladimir Darida, Frantisek Rajtoral and Stanislav Tecl found the net.
Two goals from Rodrigo Palacio put Inter Milan in a commanding position against CFR Cluj-Napoca before the second leg in Romania.
Two free kick goals from Gareth Bale -- the second in the last ten seconds of the match -- helped Tottenham to a 2-1 victory over French side Lyon in London.
Fellow English side Newcastle saw two Papiss Cisse goals dubiously ruled out for offside as they drew 0-0 with Metalist Kharkiv from the Ukraine.
Borussia Monchengladbach shared six goals with Italian side Lazio during their first leg in Germany, Libor Kozak scoring a 94th minute equalizer for the visiting side.
Anzhi Makhachkala won the first leg of their clash with Hannover 96, of Germany, 3-1 in Russia. Anzhi, managed by former Netherlands and Chelsea coach Guus Hiddink won 3-1 thanks to goals from Samuel Eto'o, Odil Ahmedov and Mbark Boussoufa.
Dutch champions Ajax beat Romanian club Steaua Bucharest 2-0 thanks to goals from Toby Alderweireld and Ricardo Van Rhijn.
Portuguese international Raul Meireles was sent off for Fenerbahce as the Turks drew 0-0 away at Bate Borisov in Belarus.
Oscar Cardozo's delicate chip earned Portuguese outfit Benfica a precious 1-0 victory away at Bayer Leverkusen in Germany.
Oleg Gusev missed a late penalty as Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev had to settle for a 1-1 draw with French side Bordeaux. Ludovic Obraniak canceled out Lukman Haruna's opener for Dynamo.
Goals from Pedro Ríos, Jose Barkero and Obafemi Martins helped Spanish side Levante to a comfortable 3-0 victory over Olympiakos, from Greece.
Swiss side FC Basel beat Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, of Ukraine, 2-0 while VfB Stuttgart drew 1-1 with Belgian side Racing Genk in Germany.