Benitez can now end turbulent reign with victory in Europa League final
Chelsea back in another European final for the second consecutive year
Chelsea’s Fernando Torres celebrates after scoring against Basel
CHELSEA 3 FC BASEL 1
(Chelses win 5-2 on aggregate)
By the end, it was a throwback to happier times for Chelsea. Their place in the Europa League final had been confirmed and, however much of a downgrade it is compared to last season’s glories, they will still cherish the chance of another trophy at the end of a difficult, often chaotic season.
The night had briefly threatened to turn into an ordeal when Mohamed Salah opened the scoring just before half-time but Chelsea never wavered or offered the sense that they might suddenly be afflicted with nerves.
Rafael Benitez’s players cleared their heads at half-time and responded with two goals in as many minutes from Fernando Torres and Victor Moses and then a third from David Luiz that will be remembered as one of the more stunning finishes Stamford Bridge has witnessed for some time.
Over the two legs they had deserved to go through and, by now, Benitez will probably not be too offended that the strange mix of politics at this club means he can take them to a European final, with Benfica the opposition in Amsterdam on May 15th, but it is the name of a former manager that is sung.
Only eight minutes had elapsed when the serenading of Mourinho began from the Matthew Harding stand. For long spells, this was the soundtrack to the night. “Jose’s coming home,” they sang.
The mood inside Stamford Bridge, holding a 2-1 lead from the first leg in Switzerland, was buoyant at the start. Yet when the players left the pitch at half-time there was a sense of foreboding engulfing the stadium. Salah’s goal had come moments before, running off Branislav Ivanovic and taking advantage of Chelsea’s inability to hold a steady defensive line. Valentin Stocker’s pass was beautifully weighted and Salah’s finish was laced with composure, clipping the ball past Petr Cech with his left foot.
Torres epitomised Chelsea wastefulness with a wild effort just before the goal to send the ball straight out for a throw-in.
That effort was followed almost immediately by a slick exchange of Basel passes that culminated in Cech saving from Salah and Ryan Bertrand blocking Stocker’s follow-up shot.
Basel could also reflect on a remarkable volleyed effort from Marco Streller – diagonal, left to right, from a long, floating cross by the right-back Markus Steinhofer – that was only a few inches from being one of the outstanding goals of the season.
Chelsea, however, had encouraged their opponents with their own finishing. After eight minutes, Lampard had his first chance to pull level with Bobby Tambling’s club record of 202 goals, striking the post after a crisp exchange of passes between Torres and Ramires.
Torres then cut in from the left, played a clever one-two with Eden Hazard and his shot would have crept into the bottom corner but for Yann Sommer’s scrambling save.
A team with a first-leg lead can often be lulled into self-preservation but Chelsea had begun the game confidently. Hazard, in particular, looked lively and a clever run, followed by an improvisational flick, gave Victor Moses the chance to pick out Ramires’s run into the penalty area. The Brazilian could not get a clean enough connection with his shot and another chance was gone.
Salah’s goal guaranteed some anxious moments but Chelsea’s response in the second half was hugely impressive. Hazard was instrumental in their equaliser, collecting the ball just inside the Basel half and then bursting between two players and accelerating away.
Broke to Lampard
His speed and movement took him beyond another challenge and when he was finally tackled the ball broke to Lampard just outside the penalty area. Sommer kept out Lampard’s left-foot drive but Torres and Ramires were both following up the rebound and the Spaniard got there first.
A sense of relief lifted the mood and that soon turned into jubilation as Moses surged infield from the left, played it to Torres and continued his own run into the penalty area. Torres scuffed his shot but the ball broke kindly for Moses. Fabian Schar blocked the first shot but Moses was clinical with the second.
Suddenly Chelsea were playing as if shed of all inhibition. David Luiz’s goal was remarkable, curling a brilliant left-foot effort into the top corner from Lampard’s layoff 25 yards out, but no one should be surprised by his audacity. A few moments earlier, Luiz had tried to catch Sommer off his line and score from his own half and was only a foot or so too high.