What: 2012/13 Europa League final
Who: Benfica vs Chelsea
When: Wednesday 15th May, 2013, at 19:45 UK Time
Where: Amsterdam ArenA, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Disaster Or Triumph?
Benfica will hope to turn the tide on a recent slide when they take on Chelsea in the Europa League final. The Lisbon giants have enjoyed a phenomenal campaign, losing only four times thus far in all competitions and playing some superb football along the way. However, a surprising home draw to Estoril and a last-gasp defeat to bitter rivals FC Porto at the weekend has seen them relinquish their lead in the Portuguese SuperLiga. With only one match remaining, Jorge Jesus’ side now need Porto to drop points on the final day if they are to overtake them for the title.
After topping the league table for a majority of the season losing the title at this stage will be especially heartbreaking for Benfica and their supporters. They will need to focus on their quest for two other trophies as well, the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League. If losing the title would be considered heartbreaking, walking away from these final two weeks of the season with no trophies to show would an absolute disaster.
This is certainly a side with character however as evidenced by their progression to the final of the Europa League. Specifically, the 3-1 win over Fenerbahce in the semi-final second leg showed the sort of spirit necessary to win silverware. After falling in Turkey 1-0, the Eagles needed a big performance in the return leg to advance to the final.
Dirk Kuyt’s first half penalty gave the Turkish side a precious away goal, but two Oscar Cardozo goals in each half added to Nicolas Gaitan’s opener gave Benfica a famous victory. The stage is set for a classic final against Chelsea and an opportunity to make things right by claiming a European title.
There is a lengthy list of all the titles Chelsea have missed out on this season; however the final stretch of the season has provided the Londoners a chance to salvage something from a season that began so promisingly. The Blues have finished their Premier League campaign in strong fashion and have all but mathematically clinched a spot in the Champions League for next season. This has been the team’s overriding goal in the last few months and while it was deemed the least of what should be achieved, qualification for world football’s elite club tournament has been met with real relief.
Clinching a spot in the Champions League has eased the pressure on Rafael Benitez. Though he is a lame duck manager who will be replaced and his appointment was greeted with vitriolic abuse by supporters, the Spaniard has begun to win plaudits for his work. Even the club’s fans have eased their stance toward the former Liverpool boss, perhaps aware that getting behind the team in the final crucial matches has been the more helpful route.
Now the challenge is for Benitez and the players to end the season on a high by lifting the Europa League trophy. While the Blues have not been a model of consistency, they have enjoyed a steady run-in which has put them in a position to close out the campaign with a bang. It may be a different feeling for much of this squad as last year at this time they were preparing for the final of the Champions League. While it may be viewed as a step backwards by some, certainly all involved with Chelsea would like nothing more than to win another European title.
Benfica 3-1 Fenerbahce (02/05; Europa League)
Benfica 1-1 Estoril (06/05; Portuguese SuperLiga)
Porto 2-1 Benfica (11/05; Portuguese SuperLiga)
Manchester United 0-1 Chelsea (05/05; Premier League)
Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham (08/05; Premier League)
Aston Villa 1-2 Chelsea (11/05; Premier League)
Chelsea: Eden Hazard (doubt); John Terry (doubt); Demba Ba
Players to watch
Benfica – Lima: The 29-year-old journeyman may have been a late bloomer, but Benfica are reaping the rewards of a player snapped up from Braga last year. The Brazilian striker has been downright superb this season with 27 goals in 46 matches, a fantastic return for a player who has replaced Oscar Cardozo as the main choice up front for the Eagles. After a fine spell with Braga, Lima has enjoyed a seamless transition to Benfica and the hope for the Portuguese is that he can light up the final with the goals needed to secure the trophy.
Chelsea – Frank Lampard: His brace against Aston Villa at the weekend not only gave Chelsea a vitally important 2-1 victory in their fight for a Champions League place, but also made Lampard the top scorer in Chelsea history surpassing the old record set by Bobby Tambling with his 203rd goal for the club. This has been a season of redemption for the 34-year-old, who initially had been left out in the cold by former manager Roberto Di Mateo. Since taking over the reins at Chelsea, Benitez has shown trust in the veteran and has been rewarded with a series of good displays and vital goals. After endless speculation about Lampard going abroad earlier in the campaign, the talk now is focused on retaining the services of the well-respected midfielder.
In order to give the Europa League a boost, UEFA have tried it all in recent years including renaming the competition, rebranding it, and allowing Champions League teams entry when they finish third in their group stage section. This much-maligned tournament has struggled next to the Champions League, however it has been a competition that has produced some superb matches over the years and for so many teams around Europe still holds great importance. This final should help raise the profile of the Europa League even more as it promises to be a fantastic affair.
It remains to be seen whether Benfica will be affected by their poor finish to the domestic season which sees them on the brink of losing the Portuguese SuperLiga. But can a tired Chelsea, who have already played 67 matches this season, capitalise, especially after already missing out on so many cups and finals this season?
It seems like such an evenly-matched game with both sides boasting attacks which can score goals and backlines which are steady enough. It surely will be a closely-fought battle where perhaps an individual moment of brilliance could be the difference on the night. Both teams have players who are capable of that sort of inspiration and it is difficult to pick out a clear favourite. In the end, perhaps Chelsea have the slight edge, considering their current good form and the feel-good atmosphere brought on by the club’s imminent Champions League qualification. There should be goals and this has all the makings of a match that could go beyond 90 minutes. Chelsea 2-1 Benfica.
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