Chelsea, Benitez face selection issues
Chelsea at least has forewarning. Tottenham Hotspur may have underestimated Basel in its Europa League quarterfinal but the Swiss side’s penalty shootout progress from that tie has made clear that Basel is a team of genuine attacking quality, a team that Chelsea must treat with respect (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET).
Basel, the first Swiss side to reach the semifinal of any European competition since Grasshoppers was beaten on away goals by Bastia in the last four of the UEFA Cup in 1978, seems to relish the role of underdog, almost daring more illustrious sides to take it lightly. Before the quarterfinal, so many players and club officials came out with the line about being delighted to have got that far and being privileged to play a team of Tottenham’s stature, that it was hard to believe it wasn’t club policy.
After the semifinal draw, Basel manager Murat Yakin was similarly quick to butter up his opponents. “I’d better rush to the toilet,” Yakin said in mock fear. “Chelsea is the best team left in the competition, but there is no reason to feel upset or afraid of this draw. I've never been to the Stamford Bridge and I'm looking forward to playing there.”
Yakin genuinely seems to be relishing the experience, his pre-match comments unusually lighthearted. Told that Branislav Ivanovic will travel despite being bitten by Luis Suarez in Chelsea’s Premier League draw at Liverpool on Sunday, Yakin joked that he hoped “he does not come to Basel suffering from rabies” and said he had no desire for the semifinal “to turn into a game of Pac-Man.”
Chelsea must even be aware of the game Basel is playing and yet at the same time there is a justifiable feeling that this was the easiest draw Chelsea could have got. The atmosphere in St. Jakob Park will be noisy, but playing Basel there is not the same challenge as playing Benfica in the Stadium of Light or Fenerbahce in the Sukru Saracoglu.
“I think we would have hoped for Basel,” said Chelsea club secretary David Barnard. “But then, Basel have just put out Tottenham and were responsible for Manchester United not getting through the group stage [last season] which is a tough one.” Rafa Benitez noted Switzerland is “not too far away”, which is manager-speak for “not as intimidating as some of the other grounds.”
Certainly Chelsea will be grateful that it did not have to face Tottenham in three vital games in the space of a fortnight; six days after the second leg of the semifinal it plays Spurs in a league game at Stamford Bridge that will go a long way to determining who qualifies for next season’s UEFA Champions League.
But Basel, three points clear at the top of the Swiss league and unbeaten at home in all competitions since August, poses a significant threat, particularly from wide positions. Mohammed Salah, the 22-year-old Egypt winger, tormented the Spurs' left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the first leg to the extent he had to be taken off just before the hour, and Kyle Naughton didn’t fare too much better in the second either. Ashley Cole, Chelsea’s preferred left back, returned to training this week after a hamstring injury, but he is unlikely to have recovered for the first leg, meaning a tough defensive task for Ryan Bertrand.
After showing caution earlier in his reign, Benitez has of late got into the habit of selecting all three of Juan Mata, Oscar and Eden Hazard, although the distribution can vary. Given Hazard’s shortcomings when it comes to tracking, it may be that he uses Oscar, a slight doubt with a groin problem, on the left – as he did to combat Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta in the FA Cup semifinal – to try to block in the Basel right back, be that Philipp Degen or Markus Steinhofer, and prevent him doubling up with Salah.
Valentin Stocker is also a threat on the left, and that poses Benitez with another issue: combat him with the Cesar Azpilicueta, who seems to be feeling the fatigue of Chelsea’s hectic season more than most, or use Ivanovic there, which would mean John Terry – or possibly Gary Cahill, who is also back in training this week after injury – partnering David Luiz in the center.
Chelsea should have an edge in central midfield but at least significant as tactical issues is that of fatigue. Juan Mata has started 49 games this season and came off the bench in another seven, while another 11 players have started more than 30 matches. The last couple of months have been a dreadful slog of two games a week almost every week – and in one case three. A certain weariness is inevitable and it is how Chelsea deal with that – the effectiveness of Benitez’s rotation strategy – that as much as anything will determine whether this season ends in Champions League qualification and a trophy or in failure.
In our other match of the day, Fenerbahce, like Basel, is in its first European semifinal and takes on Benfica (live, FOX Soccer Plus, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET) looking to banish memories of a 7-0 defeat in Lisbon in 1975-76 on the only other occasion the sides have met. More pertinently, its 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions ended on Sunday when it lost 2-0 to Genclerbirligi in the Turkish Süper Lig.
Benfica, meanwhile, remains serene, four points clear at the top in the Portuguese league, having lost just two games in all competitions – both away Champions League qualifiers in October – all season. "It's our second semifinal in three years," said Benfica director and former Portugal international Manuel Rui Costa. "We are growing and improving. We are happy to be here but we want more: our goal is to reach the final. Benfica have not participated in a European final for many years and we believe the wait could be about to end.”