And so, once again, Chelsea are the last English team standing in Europe after getting through to the semis of the Europa League last night. We didn’t play especially well, but with seven first team players rested, on an artificial pitch in the freezing cold, ‘get the job done’ I guess was the only mandate – which thankfully we just about did.
The highlight of the game by a country mile was Frank Lampard’s incredible pass to Fernando Torres in the fourth minute and the cool subsequent finish that took the Spaniard up to 19 goals for the season. Victor Moses scored our other goal, curling the ball into the top corner after a neat one-two with Ramires on the edge of the box. I think Moses was Chelsea’s MOTM; the fact that he seemed to be the only player doing any real running or grafting probably counted for more than anything. Chelsea twice gave the lead away failing to deal with (in all honesty) fairly tame crosses into the box and then ultimately lost the game after conceding a honest contender for the softest penalty of all time! Just thank goodness it didn’t count for anything.
We were probably given the easiest of all draws for the semi-final, playing the away leg first against FC Basel. It involves the least amount of travelling against probably the worst team still in Europe. I think Tottenham’s struggles against the Swiss side were the result of carelessness and then bad fortune to have key players missing for the return fixture. Contrary to the groundless assertions that Benitez might be prioritising the Europa League over a top 4 finish, I think we’ll use these ties to rest a lot of first team players and so I’ll think we’ll give Basel a decent chance of causing an upset – we still of course have to be huge favourites.
I was disappointed this week to hear Mikel’s comments before Thursday’s game in Moscow where he apparently admitted that he “struggled to motivate” himself for Europa League matches. I wasn’t disappointed however because I thought the quote (in context) was inappropriate or elitist or unprofessional, but because he should’ve been clever enough to realise how such comments were always going to be twisted and misconstrued. This is the full transcript (from the BBC website):
“Hopefully, next season we are not going to be in it and we are going to be prime time.”
“Champions League football is what this club has always been involved in and that is what we as players want to achieve,”
“We want to be in the top four, top three, whatever. We want to be in the Champions League next season.
“No disrespect to the Europa League … but when you get that buzz, and you hear the Champions League song, it’s different.
“And we have been used to it, to those nights, those special nights, and we want to get them back, we want to be involved again in the Champions League next season.
“I don’t even know the Europa League song. I have been here seven years and I have never played football on Thursday nights.”
If anyone didn’t watch yesterday’s game on ESPN, you don’t have to be a genius to guess what the commentators inferred from these seemingly reasonable remarks. Even former Chelsea defender, Frank Laboeuf called Mikel stupid for saying this and suggested he should be more grateful to be a professional footballer and just ‘get on with his job’. I found these accusations completely absurd. What could possibly be wrong with a top class professional expressing a preference for the elite competitions? Everything Mikel said with regards to the Europa League was expressed as a point of comparison to the Champions League – at no point, it seems to me at least, did he suggest he is too good for the Europa League or that he doesn’t care whether Chelsea win the trophy or not (which admittedly, would’ve been slightly contentious). Ultimately I guess this is just another demonstration of the merits of clichés and platitudes over honest opinions for the modern day footballer.
With all the tiredness, inconsistent form and so much else left to play for, it’s a shame to say the smart money is probably on Manchester City for Sunday’s game. I think we’ll line up how we did against Sunderland with Mata, Hazard and Oscar all rested; the only issues will be if Demba Ba and Ryan Bertrand are fit enough to start. Torres’ current form means that Ba’s absence wouldn’t be the end of the world but Paulo Ferreira marking Samir Nasri has got disaster written all over it. He’d more than likely need Luiz’ help defending the flank and for all his talents, Luiz is a better player when he can focus solely on his job in the back line, a consideration made ten times more important when his job is watching Kun Aguero and Carlos Tevez.
Say what you like about Benitez however, as we all do, the man is in his element with these one off big game cup ties and only a fool would write his sides off – as Ferguson and Mourinho would surely testify. Our quarter final game at Old Trafford showed our players aren’t exactly for lying down and giving up either.
I think it’s important that we distinguish Sunday’s game from our remaining fixtures in this crazily hectic end to the season. A top 4 position is and must remain the priority but for 48 hours now it has to be put to the back of our minds, because no matter what our league position is or how much Mikel hates playing on Thursdays, an opportunity to win five FA Cups in seven years deserves the full attention of any and every club, and it’d be dishonest to pretend otherwise.