Benitez looks for a final finish to his time at Chelsea
Londoners look to add another European title as Benfica aim to end run of final defeats
Eden Hazard of Chelsea (left) will miss the Europa League final against Benfica in Amsterdam. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
He may only have been fresh in the door at the time, but back before Christmas when Chelsea were completing their exit from the Champions League and qualification for next year’s competition was looking far from assured, you probably would have got rather attractive odds on Rafa Benitez outlasting Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini in his job.
A strong finish to the club’s league campaign and the prospect of another European trophy, however, mean the 53-year-old “interim” manager can have an enhanced CV and a head held high as he is shown the Stamford Bridge door over the coming weeks. Throw in a fun-sized cheque and there’d be little difference with most of his recent “permanent” predecessors.
As the press here in Amsterdam never tired of telling both camps at the pre-match conferences last night, the Spaniard’s side go into the game as favourites, but they are far from sure things against a team whose fluency has helped them overcome some decent opposition on the way to this final.
Chelsea are hampered too by the absence through injury of Eden Hazard and, almost certainly, John Terry while Demba is cup-tied. In their absence Benitez, who knows a thing or two about juggling his resources in a European final, to be fair, has some big decisions to make.
David Luiz, Ramires (both formerly of Benfica) along with Gary Cahill and Victor Moses look to be the players whose fate is in the balance.
Benfica manager Jorge Jesus must make some major calls too, figuring out what changes to make in order to halt a recent slide that took on enormous proportions on Saturday when his side lost a dramatic encounter to Porto who now look almost certain to win the league. Oscar Cardozo is certain to return as could 22 -year-old Paraguayan left back Lorenzo Melgarejo.
“The league game,” said Jesus, “was important but it has nothing to do with the final of a European competition. The players were disappointed, of course, but it’s not difficult to change the mindset when they come here.”
There is a little history too, he suggested, when referring to last season’s Champions League quarter final when the Londoners struggled to put away their opponents at home even after winning the first leg in Lisbon and then being presented with a numerical advantage with Benfica’s skipper, Maxi Perrreira, sent off, in part for protesting an earlier penalty decision.
“We weren’t happy last year,” said Jesus; “we were unlucky to lose but we hope that we will have luck with us this time.” They might be due some alright, given that they have lost six European finals in the 51 years since they beat Real Madrid to retain the European Cup, also here in Amsterdam.
There is certainly enough pace, power and technical ability in his team to cause problems for a side that very rarely maintains its collective defensive concentration for 90 minutes; a major factor in the side having kept just two clean sheets in 14 European games this season.
Their back four should certainly have their work cut out tonight against an attack led by Cardozo. They score quite a few goals too, though, thanks to the talents of players such as Juan Mata, Oscar and Frank Lampard, who is expected to sign a new one-year contract to extend his stay at the club into a 13th season in the coming days.
The Benfica boss says Chelsea are actually better in attack this season than last but it is difficult to see anyone contributing as much as Didier Drogba did in the Champions League final. Good as they are, though, Benfica are not quite at Bayern Munich’s level but Chelsea must perform to beat them.