Chelsea-Basel, Fenerbahce-Benfica in Europa League
NYON, Switzerland (AP) — European champion Chelsea is the latest English favorite lined up for surprise Swiss side Basel, in the Europa League semifinals.
Friday’s draw sent Chelsea on a first-leg trek to St. Jakob Park, where Tottenham lost a quarterfinals penalty shootout on Thursday and Manchester United was eliminated from the Champions League last season.
“I like to be the underdog,” Basel president Bernhard Heusler said after UEFA paired Fenerbahce with Benfica in the other semifinal. “We are still a small Swiss side in the eyes of the English fans.”
Basel opens against Chelsea on April 25, and Fenerbahce hosts Benfica in Istanbul on the same date. Return matches are on May 2. The May 15 final is at Amsterdam Arena.
Chelsea aims to complete an unlikely double by lifting the second-tier trophy as the reigning Champions League winner.
All four semifinalists began the season in the Champions League before being eliminated and dropping into the second-tier competition.
Basel, like Fenerbahce, has reached its first semifinal in any European club competition.
Though Basel has never won a UEFA match in England, it led 2-0 at Tottenham in the first leg before being pegged to 2-2. Last season, the Swiss champion drew 3-3 at Old Trafford in the Champions League group stage before a 2-1 home win sent Basel to the last-16 at United’s expense.
“It wasn’t so long (ago) that people told me that Basel always fails against teams in England,” said Heusler, whose team has progressed despite selling star players Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka in the offseason and firing coach Heiko Vogel late last year.
Chelsea also fired a coach midseason, and Roberto di Matteo’s interim replacement Rafa Benitez aims to add a Europa League trophy to his UEFA Cup win with Valencia in 2004 and Champions League title with Liverpool the next year.
None of the semifinalists has won the Europa League, or its predecessor the UEFA Cup. Benfica was beaten finalist in 1983, against Anderlecht.
Fenerbahce has enjoyed its best European run despite negative headlines over its links to a 2011 match-fixing case and UEFA punishments for its fans’ behavior. Home games against BATE Borisov and Viktoria Plzen in earlier knockout rounds were played in an empty stadium.
“Two years ago we were banned from Europe, this year we were threatened by being banned from Europe and two times we played in a silent stadium,” Fenerbahce chief executive Hasan Yilmaz told The Associated Press. “Sometimes they motivate us even more and give us the edge.”
Yilmaz praised the commitment of players such as Netherlands forward Dirk Kuyt and Portugal midfielder Raul Meireles who joined in the offseason despite suggestions UEFA would bar the Turkish club from its competitions.
“Players can be great and very expensive but they are not part of a team,” Yilmaz said. “These are great players. There is a strong friendship and I trust our team.”