Time for a full time review then of our ‘4 game in 9 day’ adventure. Somehow once again we’ve managed to start pulling it together just as things are starting to really matter. Up until now, even during the good bits of the season, we’ve only been subjected to two types of performances – those grounded in battled-hardened experience and won through individual excellence – usually Juan Mata’s (Spurs away, Shakhtar home etc) and those that could be adequately delineated as an exhibition of collective shiteness (WCC final, QPR home etc). Now however, thank goodness, Benitez has finally got this group digging in and grinding out ugly wins as a unit. Not that that’s how we want to be winning games, but it’s nice to finally have some reassurance that we’re capable of salvaging points when Mata and/or Hazard aren’t on top form.
I think the 3-1 win against Rubin on Thursday should be enough to seal the tie. After making much harder work of the previous two ties against Sparta and Steaua, it was nice to see us flex our muscles a bit and put down a side, which by no means are to be taken lightly, but ultimately are a good deal less talented and well trained than we are. In the end it was comfortable, even with the concession of an extremely soft penalty for a John Terry handball.
With Demba Ba cup-tied, the importance of the form of Fernando Torres to our chances of winning the Europa League I’m sure hasn’t escaped anyone’s consideration. In my opinion if the Spaniard can maintain the form he’s shown this past few weeks we will win the competition no problem. Not only has his finishing sharpened but his entire style has become more intense and forceful and plainly more thought through. He’s gone from looking like a man who was ready to give up, move on and try again elsewhere to a man desperate to stay at Chelsea and remain first choice striker for at least another year. If and only if he can maintain and build on this current form – I don’t see a problem with that.
As for yesterday’s game against Sunderland, I’m not sure I can recall three goals so awful in the same game. Alright, there was some quality to John O’Shea’s header which assisted Azpi’s own goal; Hazard and Mata’s break down the left wing leading up to Kilgallon’s own goal was pretty impressive and there might exist the slightest possibility that Ivanovic knew what he was doing, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Otherwise – three incredibly rubbish goals that summed up a pretty boring game. Not that I was expecting to be entertained. Combine our knackered (though well rotated) squad with the fact (aside from Stoke obviously) Sunderland have played the most consistently boring football all season; it was never going to be a cracker.
As far as our quest for a top four finish goes, we’re already doing better than I predicted in my previous article: http://bluechampions.com/2013/04/02/odds-shorten-on-trophy-win-but-lengthen-on-top-4-finish/ with Tottenham dropping points at home to Everton this weekend. Even more fortunate news for Chelsea though is that it’s looking unlikely Gareth Bale will be fit to play at Stamford Bridge in two weeks time after badly turning his right ankle against FC Basel. I don’t buy the notion at all that Spurs are a one man team, but there’s no denying that how far Andre Villas-Boas has taken his side forward this year has been skewed by the Welshman’s incredible form since January. There’s a good chance at the end of the season Tottenham fans may look back on the absence of their star player in their games against Chelsea as the reason that small West London club are in the Champions League at their expense, once again.
Finally, praise is in order for the way Benitez has managed the squad during this period. Having used practically every player successfully (even Yossi Benayoun!) his most ardent critics would have a hard time arguing his rotation policy wasn’t vindicated and well executed this time around. Perhaps the only possible criticism is the overuse of Eden Hazard who looked a good distance from his usual explosive self, yesterday afternoon. Whether that is the result of a 3 game in seven day period or the effects of a 55 game season finally starting to take its toll, either way, I would be in favour of leaving Hazard behind when we travel to Russia, if it means he’ll be rested for our Semi-final at Wembley a few days later.
Considering the bizarrely negative consensus surrounding our manager in England, it might be worth pointing out at this stage, if Benitez can win the Europa League with Chelsea he’ll become the only the third manager in history to win European trophies with three different clubs, alongside Giovanni Trapattoni and Udo Lattek. Not too shabby a distinction if you ask me.
If Rafa manages to somehow do the FA Cup/Europa League double this season, and secures a top four spot, then he’ll have my vote for Manager of the Year in England, no question. To pick up a team from the state Chelsea found themselves back in November and win two trophies would be beyond impressive. It would also call for a serious collective revision of perception from the Chelsea fan base, if not terms of partiality then at least in terms of respect. The man will have ‘done good’ by us and it’s a ‘fact’.
To those of you who cringing at the prospect of having to appreciate Benitez, don’t worry, he still has to win the trophies yet.