FA Cup semi-finals: Rafa Benitez senses cup glory but keeps Chelsea's champagne on ice
Manager seeks a happy ending with a trophy win for his troubled time at Stamford Bridge
Rafa Benitez was once the master at beating Chelsea in the semi-finals of major cup competitions, and somewhere in his house on Merseyside he has the medals in a drawer that prove it.
For three consecutive seasons between 2005 and 2007, Benitez, in charge of Liverpool, defeated Jose Mourinho's Chelsea at the final-four stage of the Champions League, twice, and the FA Cup. Twice his team went on to win the final. How long ago all that seemed as Chelsea arrived home from Moscow in the early hours yesterday, having done enough in their 3-2 defeat to Rubin Kazan on Thursday to reach the Europa League semi-finals.
The medals, Benitez said, are "downstairs at home" and, as for a favourite, he intimated that it had to be his 2005 Champions League winners' medal. "I have all the medals," Benitez said. "I have a picture of me with both the Europa League and Champions League. That isn't normal [commonplace] for a coach.
"The league is the competition that means you've been the most consistent and is more difficult. But the joy of winning a cup competition is massive, whether it's the FA Cup, the Europa League or the Champions League. I had a glass of champagne [after the 2006 FA Cup final], but not a lot. I don't really drink. I said to my wife, 'Champagne, champagne', but she said, 'It's a waste of money'."
In this strange season for Chelsea, the club derided for being the first holders of the Champions League to go out in the group stages now find themselves as England's last representatives in European competition. The manager so despised by his own supporters has the team third in the league and in two semi-finals, the first against Manchester City in the FA Cup at Wembley tomorrow.
They are not yet ordering the champagne, but the mood around Benitez has changed, if not attitudes towards him. It can, as ever, quickly turn bleak and defeat to City would alter things again. For the time being he can say that his team have reached the final four on four occasions this season – the Fifa Club World Cup, the Capital One Cup, as well as the FA Cup and the Europa League.
Nevertheless, Chelsea can claim that semi-finals are familiar territory. Since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 they have reached 18 semi-finals, winning 10 and losing six so far. As for the FA Cup semi-finals, they have reached that stage five times in the last 10 years and have gone on to win the trophy every time apart from in 2006, when Benitez's Liverpool beat them 2-1 at Old Trafford.
Liverpool's FA Cup win in 2006 was the last major honour that Benitez won in English football. "You enjoy the moment with the players and the staff," he said. "I still have a photograph: me, Steven Gerrard and the FA Cup. It's in a room on the bottom floor of the house, we have a display of photographs. There is not much room, but I would love to create some space for some Chelsea photographs."
There is the basic disconnect between Chelsea and Benitez. His best days, in England at least, were that period in the mid-part of the last decade when the two clubs' animosity towards one another could hardly have been greater. Yet this is shaping up to be a funny old season. In December, with Chelsea out of the Champions League in the group stages for the first time, and supporters' feelings against Benitez running at their highest, it looked like a damage-limitation job. But context is everything. Suddenly, the unfashionable Europa League and a semi-final against Basel is shaping up to be something of an adventure for Chelsea.
After all, it is not as if there is another English club still competing to succeed them as champions of Europe. Manchester United have run away with the Premier League title, so now the really interesting part of it is how other competitions will play out and who will prevail in the race for the two top-four places still realistically up for grabs.
"I want to finish in the top three and win at least one trophy," Benitez said. "I have to say again, I think I have done a good job. We are quite pleased and want to keep doing that to the end. If we finish in the top three and win one of the trophies or both, I will be really pleased and really proud, for sure."
Europa League: Last four
Basel v Chelsea
Fenerbahce v Benfica
To be played 25 April & 2 May n Final Wed 15 May, Amsterdam
* Odds to win trophy 5/4 Chelsea, 7/4 Benfica, 11/2 Fenerbahce, 8/1 Basel
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