x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Rafa Benitez pays tribute to Chelsea players after Europa League win

Spanish manager thrilled to see fans' support after victory over Benfica hands Premier League club another European title.

Rafa Benitez says Chelsea won the Europa League title after battling several odds. Matt Dunham / AP Photo
Rafa Benitez says Chelsea won the Europa League title after battling several odds. Matt Dunham / AP Photo

On the pitch at the end, when the game was won and the medals presented, there came a moment of truce.

Rafa Benitez cradled the trophy and allowed a smile to cross his face. Behind the goal behind which Branislav Ivanovic had scored a last-minute winner, Chelsea fans applauded. It was not the love or the warmth that other managers might have stimulated but it was the final stage in a process of reconciliation that has been ongoing since Benitez was booed in his first game in charge of the club, against Manchester City last November.

He lashed out at fans after the FA Cup win at Middlesbrough in February but since then his policy has been one of quiet stubbornness.

In his six months as interim manager, Benitez has taken Chelsea to two semi-finals, to Champions League qualification and to the Europa League.

He could be permitted a blast of vindication, but it did not come.

“Hopefully some people will see it’s not bad,” he said. “If you analyse everything, we won the Europa League with one striker for every single game. We managed with players with yellow cards, if you put everything together you will realise how difficult it was with a squad that was not too big. With one or two injuries we had just 18 players.”

His policy of rotation, certainly, has been justified. He has kept the plates spinning even as his team was sapped by fatigue.

“It’s a special night for everyone involved,” he said. “If you play in the final of a European competition and win you have to be really proud.”

And there was the odd hint at what he is most proud of. He talked of Frank Lampard – whose new contract is expected to be confirmed later this week – and how he had coaxed the best from him, and of how his game-plan had led directly to both goals.

“We were playing against a team who are pressing high with the full-backs going forward,” he explained. “We knew they were exposing the defence so the game plan was trying to run behind the defence.”

That was what brought the first goal for Fernando Torres. The winner, from a corner, was the result of both technical analysis and the advice of David Luiz, who joined Chelsea from Benfica last season.

“It was something we were practising,” Benitez said “We knew how they were defending corners, knew the weak points.”

For the Benfica coach, Jorge Jesus, defeat came just four days after a last-minute defeat to Porto saw his side lose the leadership of the Portuguese league with just one game to go – despite that being their first league defeat of the season.

“I am proud of being here at the final,” he insisted.

“Benfica showed to all the world that they should be the worthy winners and they proved that they are a high-quality team. The Benfica fans were better than the Chelsea fans. They deserved a victory for their passion and the patriotism they showed. For  most of the 93 minutes, Benfica were better than Chelsea. We were a more consistent team in organising the game. We played high-quality football from a technical and tactical point of view. In the first half we were able to prevent Chelsea using the counter-attack; in the second half less so.”

He must now try to pick his side up for the final game of the league season and the Portuguese Cup final.

Benitez, though, can head off with a quiet sense of satisfaction.

“I am happy,” he said, “pleased because we were working so hard.”

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