Chelsea seeks salvation in Europa League final
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — After humiliation in the Champions League comes potential salvation in the Europa League for Chelsea, with Wednesday’s final against Benfica offering the English team an eighth and final chance for silverware from a turbulent and grueling campaign.
Chelsea has turned its season around after a turbulent end to 2012, when it became the first reigning champion to exit the Champions League at the group stage, Roberto Di Matteo was fired as manager and the team lost the final of the Club World Cup to Corinthians.
Rafa Benitez came in as a controversial interim replacement and was tasked with qualifying the team for next season’s Champions League and winning a trophy. With the first objective virtually guaranteed, the second will be decided in Amsterdam in Chelsea’s 68th game of the season.
“All the season has been difficult, but now is almost the end and we have to do everything to finish the job off,” Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic said. “It was very disappointing for us to go out of the Champions League. We tried to motivate ourselves to do our best in the Europa League. We’re in the final and we’re happy about that. We will do everything to try to win the trophy.”
Whereas Chelsea is approaching the final in a positive frame of mind after an unbeaten run of eight games in all competitions, the same cannot be said of Benfica.
The Portuguese team surrendered the lead in its domestic league by losing 2-1 to fierce rival Porto after conceding a stoppage-time goal that saw Benfica coach Jorge Jesus drop to his knees in agony. It was Benfica’s first league loss of the season and is likely to see the team pipped to the title by Porto.
Some of Benfica’s key players look exhausted and there’s suddenly a lot of fear they’ll finish the season empty-handed, having been on for the league-Europa League-Portuguese Cup treble.
“It knocked us sideways. It really hurts to lose like that,” Jesus said of the Porto loss. “Football’s unpredictable. Sometimes goals come when you least expect them.”
Benfica’s glory days came more than 50 years ago, when it won successive European Cups in 1961 and ’62. The team has lost its last six European finals — five in the European Cup and one in the old UEFA Cup between 1963 and ’90.
With the Portuguese league lacking profile and as much a breeding ground for young, hungry south American players as anything else, Benfica has found it hard to stay competitive in Europe’s elite over the last two decades.
“Winning the Europa League would be a very important moment in the club’s history, and for the players and staff,” Jesus told UEFA.com. “Getting to the final is a great achievement in itself but coming away victorious would be even greater. “I know that Benfica’s great moment in sporting history was in the 1960s. I was born in 1954, but I know the history of the club because I have read about it and it is illustrated in photos at the training ground.”
In contrast, Chelsea has only turned into a major European force since the era of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich began in 2003, with last year’s Champions League title ending a run of near misses in the continent’s top competition.
The players have acknowledged that they’ve struggled to adapt to life in the Europa League. Yet with a trophy on offer and the chance to become only the fourth club to have won all three major European titles, they aren’t complaining now.
Chelsea is likely to be without winger Eden Hazard and captain John Terry, who were hurt in Saturday’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa that all but secured Champions League football for next season. It is a particularly cruel blow for Terry, who was forced to sit out last season’s Champions League final through suspension.
“Whatever we do it’s as a club and as long as John’s here, he’s part of it,” Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard said. ”(But) it won’t soften the blow for him.
“Knowing John, he will be there and he’ll be with the lads. Of course we’ll miss his influence — in the modern day, you can’t think of many captains that have surpassed what he’s done in terms of what he’s won.”
Former Benfica players David Luiz and Ramires should be in Chelsea’s team while the Portuguese side will start defensive midfielder Nemanja Matic, who joined from Chelsea in 2011 and has grown into an impressive player at Benfica.