The banner on the Shed End still proclaims #RAFAOUT, the supporters sing for Jose Mourinho or Roberto Di Matteo and yet, at the club where nothing stays the same for long and conflict seems eternal, it will be Rafa Benitez who leads Chelsea into the Europa League final a week on Wednesday.
The manager no-one wanted. The competition no-one cared about. The season that looked like it could be a train wreck in December, now delivers the fifth European final in the club’s history. It could yet end in more recriminations if Benitez does not deliver the club a top four finish and Champions League football next season but from where Chelsea stand right now the picture does not look too bad.
It will potentially be the 11th major honour in ten years of the Roman Abramovich regime and an appropriately bonkers finale – although the final is not the last game of the season – to another madcap season at Stamford Bridge. No club has quite perfected the art of mining trophies from seasons of managerial sackings and general mid-term chaos, like Chelsea.
Although nothing will quite top last year’s Champions League triumph under Di Matteo, this season is building to another crescendo. No English club has won European trophies in consecutive seasons since Nottingham Forest completed back-to-back European Cup wins in 1980. It is only the Europa League but it is not as if any other English club are still flying the flag in European competition.
Benitez’s team play Manchester United on Sunday and Tottenham on Wednesday – two games that will go a long way to dictating whether they qualify for the Champions League next season. So much can still change, and over it all hangs the question of who will succeed Benitez, of more pertinently whether it will be Mourinho. This club remains the show that you simply cannot tear your eyes away from.
Chelsea will play Benfica in the final in Amsterdam in 12 days’ time, the same club they beat in the quarter-finals of the Champions League last season. For most of the club’s support, the opposition to Benitez’s appointment will never change even if he dares follow his players on their victory lap in Amsterdam should they win the final. No-one said this was simple.
Chelsea’s opponents in the final are the former club of David Luiz and Ramires, and it was Luiz who scored the goal that reminded everyone that Chelsea and Basle who really belong to two different worlds. That was the third of three goals in the space of nine minutes before the hour that put the tie beyond the Swiss club’s reach.
Behind in the first half to Mohamed Salah’s goal in time added-on, Chelsea finally remembered that they are essentially a Champions League club serving an exile in the Europa League and raised the quality of their performance to a level which Basle simply could not live with.
Benitez picked a team that did not include John Terry, who had played the previous two games before last night and it will be interesting to see if the captain starts the final. He famously missed the Champions League final last season through suspension and it will be a big call either way whether he plays in Amsterdam, although you can expect Benitez to make it without any reference to sentiment.
There were enough chances for Chelsea to break Basle’s spirit in the first half and put this tie comfortably out of sight but through bad luck and their own failings in front of goal they failed to do so and with almost the last kick of the first half, the Swiss side scored.
It would have been different if Frank Lampard’s volley into the ground that bounced up and struck Yann Sommer’s right post had gone in. The ball had come to him from Fernando Torres’ nicely weighted, lofted ball over the Basle defence. You could see from the way Lampard pushed on late in the game, long after it was won, that he is taking nothing for granted in pursuit of the goal that will put him level with the club-record of 202.
Petr Cech was first obliged to make a good save coming out to meet Salah when the dangerous Valentin Stocker played the Egyptian striker in on goal. Then, in time added on at the end of the half, it was Stocker’s ball again through a very square, static Chelsea back four that Salah ran onto and curled, left-footed, beyond the reach of Cech.
It was, all told, a marvellous response from Chelsea in the first 15 minutes of the second half. The first goal came from Torres, a well-anticipated tidy-up job from a few yards out. Hazard, who was excellent last night, drove forward from midfield to create a shooting chance for Lampard and the save from Sommer was careless. He allowed the ball to roll across his goal to Torres.
Two minutes later the second arrived. This time it was Moses coming in from the left, a return ball from Torres and when the latter’s first shot was blocked by Fabian Schar the rebound fell nicely for Moses to score. Now they were feeling unstoppable and nothing articulated their many and varied assets more than Luiz’s wonderfully struck third goal.
It was Lampard who checked himself with the ball on the edge of the box and played it back to the Brazilian, who curled a shot with his left foot with enough draw to bring its flight from outside the goal to rest inside Sommer’s right post
That was it for Basel, although Fabian Frei did hit the bar with a later shot. Terry never did get a run-out at the end, Benitez giving Nathan Ake his fourth senior appearance instead. At Chelsea, they are accustomed to this kind of success but winning trophies never loses its appeal. Amid all the upheavals, you could argue that success like this has been the one constant of the Abramovich years. For ten days later this month, they could be the holders of the Champions League and the Europa League. Not bad at all.
Cardozo fires Benfica to final
Benfica booked a final date with Chelsea after overcoming a stubborn Fenerbahce 3-1 at the Stadium of Light, progressing 3-2 on aggregate.
Nicolas Gaitan flicked the hosts ahead after nine minutes, only for Dirk Kuyt to equalise for Fenerbahce from the spot. Oscar Cardozo levelled the scores on aggregate 10 minutes before half-time and then added the all-important third half-way through the second half to confirm Benfica's Amsterdam date.
Five stars: Chelsea's European finals
1971: Cup-Winners' Cup
Peter Osgood scored in a 1-1 draw and in the replay in Athens as Dave Sexton's side beat Real Madrid 2-1.
1998: Cup-Winners' Cup
Gianfranco Zola's goal within seconds of coming on as a sub earned a 1-0 win over Stuttgart in Stockholm.
2008: Champions League
John Terry slipped up and Didier Drogba was sent off as Avram Grant's side lost on penalties to Manchester United in a Moscow monsoon.
2012: Champions League
Drogba equalised Thomas Müller's opener for “hosts” Bayern Munich before Arjen Robben had an extra-time penalty saved. Drogba then clinched a 4-3 shootout win.
...and No 5: Benfica v Chelsea
Wednesday 15 May, 7.45pm Amsterdam, ITV
Man of the match Hazard.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee J Eriksson (Swe).
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