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Chelsea claims title amid turmoil
Chelsea are the champions of Europe in every sense. They are the reigning holders of the UEFA Champions League for another week, and downed Benfica to win the Europa League 2-1 in late and spectacular fashion on Wednesday night.
Branislav Ivanovic scored the crucial goal with a late header in the 93rd minute that floated to the far post, past the despairing Artur Moraes and into the Benfica net.
It was a cinematic ending to a game that was for long spells destined for the straight-to-home-video audience. The match lived down to its billing: the Europa League is a second-tier tournament, and it felt like it throughout the night. Most galling, UEFA had made tickets to this game hard to get for fans of both clubs yet were plenty of empty seats at the Amsterdam ArenA. This meant there was little tension in the stands or on the pitch, and at times the teams seemed to be going through the motions. Benfica clearly wanted the game more; Chelsea, for spells, seemed like they just wanted the game but not to have to actually go out and win it.
But win it they did, and after such a soggy show, they will consider themselves lucky. For long stretches, Benfica were the better, more thoughtful and incisive side. What Benfica were not was accurate or fortunate. Had Oscar Cardozo’s header just after the halftime break not been ruled out for a marginal offside call, this might have had a different ending. But it is equally true to say that had Benfica sunk any of the half dozen chances they had crafted before that, we wouldn’t even pick that call out as important.
Instead it was Chelsea, disorganized and tired, guided by an interim manager – Rafa Benitez – the fans simply despise who came up with the guile to win. Fernando Torres opened the night up with a classic bit of Route One finishing when Juan Mata failed to control an outlet from his keeper, Petr Cech.
Normally, this would have been comedy, but this is snakebit Benfica we’re talking about, a team that has gone over 50 years without tasting European glory. Instead, Mata’s desperate pinwheel threw Ezequiel Garay for a loop, allowing Torres in clean on goal. Lusiao tried to muscle him off to no avail, the Spaniard rounded the keeper, and when Artur was on his backside, scored as simple as you like.
But nine minutes later, Benfica got back in it when Cesar Azpilicueta left his arms flapping at his sides for Eduardo Salvio to fire a shot onto. Match referee Bjorn Kuipers had little choice but to award the penalty, and even though Cardozo was visibly uncomfortable in taking it, he sunk it down the middle over Cech.
The final twenty minutes then developed into something approaching a tense match, with Frank Lamaprd and Cardozo having fine chances to seal the game. Lampard was nearly the hero, ghosting left to right to create space and rocking a ball off the bar with minutes of normal time to play. Artur was clearly beat on the shot, but the frame of the goal held.
It was not until the whistle was nearly in Kuiper’s mouth that the game was won. Ramires, who had been lousy much of the night, won a routine corner kick. Juan Mata hooked the corner kick in, and Ivanovic was inexplicably left unmarked at the far side of the area. He rose up and nodded it to the far post. The Benfica players stood and watched the ball tuck in.
Benfica trudged off the pitch and into an uncertain future. Their business model – one born of poverty – means that they must sell their prize talents in order to survive. Jorge Jesus has done a superb job considering that two of his prize pupils – Ramires and David Luiz – lined up against him on Wednesday night and his club also disposed of Axel Witsel and Javi Garcia earlier this season.
He is likely to lose more with Chelsea in line to nab one man who gave them fits all night long: Nicolas Gaitan. The Argentine was a terror down the flank and along with Garay, another jewel in the shop window, Benfica could be looking at a rebuilding job come this August.
But for now, Benfica will be thinking only of what got away. Their fans could not bear to look as Chelsea half-heartedly paraded the cup towards their home end. The Portuguese knew just as surely as do Chelsea’s fans that the Europa League was just consolation for the English giants. But for Benfica, it would have meant everything.
As for the Premier League giants, Chelsea have become just the fourth team in European club football history to claim all three club competitions, joining Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich. The Blues, for now, redirect their focus on securing a seat in next season's Champions League campaign.
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