FOX Soccer Exclusive
Chelsea flips gloom Euro campaign
Unpopular, rejected and on his way out of the club he may be, but Rafa Benitez will lead Chelsea in the Europa League final against Benfica (live, FOX Soccer, May 15, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) in Amsterdam.
He could become only the second manager, after Udo Lattek, to win European competitions with three different clubs; with Valencia in 2003-04 (UEFA Cup) and Liverpool in 2004-05 (UEFA Champions League). To do it with Chelsea, having only ever been appointed as interim manager, having been booed on his arrival, would be extraordinary. Even on Thursday, as Chelsea completed its semifinal victory over Basel, rather than saluting the manager who could lead the club to only its fourth European trophy, fans chanted the name of Jose Mourinho who could return to replace him before the start of next season.
Benitez seems admirably unflustered by the lack of recognition. “We’re doing our jobs and hopefully a lot of fans will appreciate that,” he said, speaking, as he always does, of “professionalism” and point out that Chelsea has won 11 of its last 13 home games. “I’ve said it before and I keep saying the same thing, with all the circumstances and everything that was around, a squad in transition, we were trying to improve this without much time because we were playing two games every week,” he said. “We’ve done well, and hopefully we can finish even better. I’m happy and we’re winning.”
Although there are those who believe his dogmatic rotation can stifle a team over the course of a league season, in terms of one-off games he remains a master tactician. His European record is astonishing: this will be his fourth final in nine years – and in two of those he wasn’t even working with a club. That Chelsea went out of the UEFA Champions League at the group stage – the worst ever performance by a defending champion, was not his fault: he oversaw only one game after replacing Roberto Di Matteo, and won that 6-1 against Nordsjaelland.
As in the first leg against Basel, Benitez selected his two most dynamic wide players, Ramires and Victor Moses on the outside of his 4-2-3-1, looking to pin in Basel’s fullbacks and prevent them supporting the wide men who had torn Tottenham apart in the previous round. Again he was successful, and again Chelsea’s wastefulness in front of goal threatened, briefly, to cost it.
Still, so utter had Chelsea’s dominance of possession been that there was something almost surreal about Basel taking the lead in the final minute of the first half. In the first minute, it’s true, Marco Streller had found space between Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta only to be confounded by the bounce and push his shot wide. But that really had been it until, six minutes before the break, Mohamed Salah played a one-two with Streller and was denied only by a sprawling block from Petr Cech. At that moment it was hard not to wonder if that was Basel’s chance, and to reflect on the comment of its coach, Murat Yakin, that if Salah could finish he wouldn’t be playing for the Swiss club. But six minutes later, the 22-year-old Egypt international swept in from the right flank, running on to Fabian Frei’s pass and arcing a shot over Cech.
Chelsea had wasted chance after chance in the first half. Frank Lampard, who remains one short of Bobby Tambling’s all-time record of 202 goals with the club, had hit the post. Goalkeeper Jurgen Sommer had saved well low to his right from Fernando Torres and fortuitously from Ramires, who rolled a shot straight into his body when he seemed to have the whole goal to aim at.
That promised a testing, edgy second half but as it has done throughout this Europa League campaign. When it needed to find a goal, Chelsea did.
“The second half went too fast,” admitted Basel coach Murat Yakin after watching his side concede three to effectively end the tie within quarter of an hour of the restart. First Torres slammed in the rebound after Sommer had saved a low shot from Lampard, then Moses made the most of a half-blocked shot that fell for him with Sommer already committed to the original effort. And finally, David Luiz curved in a majestic third goal to complete Chelsea’s trip to Amsterdam.
David Luiz, who has been in exceptional form of late, will face his former club Benfica in the final after the Eagles overcame a 1-0 first-leg deficit to beat Fenerbahce. Nicolas Gaitan converted Lima’s cross to level the aggregate scores but when Dirk Kuyt banged in a 23rd-minute penalty, Benfica was left needing to score twice to progress. Paraguayan forward Oscar Cardozo got the first of those from Enzo Perez’s pass 10 minutes before halftime and rounded off the win after 66 minutes pouncing as Luisao’s shot fell kindly for him in the box.
Benfica will have to overcome not only Chelsea in the final but also the “Curse of Bela Guttmann.” The Hungarian coach led the club to successive European Cups in 1961 and 1962. Having been denied a bonus he believed he was owed, Guttmann resigned, saying Benfica would never win a European final again until the money was paid. Benfica has reached six European finals since and has won none of them. The last of those six was the 1990 European Cup final, played in Vienna, where Guttmann is buried. Eusebio, who had been part of the 1962 side, prayed at his graveside for forgiveness but Benfica was still beaten 1-0 by AC Milan.
61 years since the original slight, has Guttmann’s fury faded? We’ll soon find out.
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