x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Europa League: Chelsea are champions of Europe once again

Goals by Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic help Chelsea end up with silverware in Europe again.

Fernando Torres, left, opened the scoring to give Chelsea the early lead. After Oscar Cardozo tied it for Benfica at the 68th minute, Branislav Ivanovic’s header in stoppage time lifted the Blues to the Europa League title.
Fernando Torres, left, opened the scoring to give Chelsea the early lead. After Oscar Cardozo tied it for Benfica at the 68th minute, Branislav Ivanovic’s header in stoppage time lifted the Blues to the Europa League title.

BENFICA 1

CHELSEA 2

Benfica Cardozo 68’ (pen)

Chelsea Torres 60’, Ivanovic 90+3’

Man of the match Petr Cech (Chelsea)

 

A headed goal from a corner, an astonishing rearguard action, a game they won that it seemed they should never have won: it might not have been Munich last year in terms of scale, or quality, or even importance, but it was close enough that Rafa Benitez's Chelsea reign ended in glory.

When he arrived in November the team was a shambles: he took them to two English domestic cup semi-finals, Uefa Champions League qualification and more European success late Wednesday night in the form of the Europa League.

It has been an extraordinary interim reign.

Yet it seemed so unlikely. Again and again in the opening minutes, Benfica sliced through Chelsea with their neat passing and again and again they spurned shooting opportunities, allowing defenders to make blocks.

It was tempting to wonder if this was the Curse of Guttmann at play, the superstition that says that, when he flounced out of the club in 1962 having been denied a bonus he thought he was due for winning a second successive European Cup, the great Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann told directors they would not win another European competition in 100 years.

This was their seventh final since his departure and the seventh to have been lost.

Chelsea seemed overwhelmed at times, struggling to deal with slicker opponents. They were ponderous and sluggish, feeling the fatigue perhaps of their 66th game of the season. The passing of Ramires, operating on the right side of midfield, was erratic, while even Juan Mata, usually such a composed presence, was unusually sloppy in possession.

That meant Chelsea's prime attacking weapon was to hit long forward passes for Fernando Torres, who worked the channels manfully but without the support or quality really to pose much threat.

Chelsea's only chance of the first half was a speculative 38th-minute effort from Frank Lampard that that Benfica goalkeeper Artur tipped over.

As Chelsea puffed and struggled to find any rhythm to their passing, it took a fine challenge from Cesar Azpilicueta to deny Rodrigo as Oscar Cardozo almost laid him in with a square pass five minutes into the second half.

But the longer Benfica's dominance went on, the more this began to feel like Munich last year, when Chelsea somehow overcame Bayern in a shoot-out.

Somehow, amid the chaos of the past two or three years there has been forged a ferocious spirit: this is a team that can take a pummelling and come back for more.

The goal, when it came just before the hour, could hardly have been simpler. Mata touched on a long Petr Cech throw for Torres, who shrugged off Luisao before rounding Artur and clipping the ball into an unguarded net.

Just as Chelsea were thinking of another victory rooted in the defensive solidity, though, Azpilicueta handled on the edge of the box and Cardozo thumped home the penalty.

Perhaps the right-back was unfortunate - Eduardo Salvio did, after all, head the ball at him from close range, but there was no reason for his arm to be raised. By having it in the position he did, he effectively invited the referee to penalise him.

Only a superb tip-over from Cech as Cardozo shaped a dipping effort towards the top corner prevented him putting Benfica ahead six minutes later.

Lampard thumped a 30-yard drive that smacked back off the bar but just as it seemed extra time was inevitable, Mata floated in an injury-time corner and Branislav Ivanovic looped a header back across Artur and into the corner.

For a moment the ball hung and the stadium watched, wondering, and then the inevitability of its trajectory dawned and there was pandemonium among the blue shirts behind the goal.

It was not quite Didier Drogba at the Allianz Arena 12 months ago, but for Chelsea, it was magnificent enough.

 

sports@thenational.ae

 

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