Amsterdam, Amsterdam we are coming… Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray… Amsterdam, Amsterdam we are coming… We are coming in the month of May…
The number of times this charming little parody of a Christian hymn was boisterously descanted by Chelsea fans on the train home to London from Villa Park on Saturday, whilst teetering dangerously on the verge of excessive, most certainly helped to create the sort of atmosphere that the occasion deserved. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling incredibly privileged to have seen firsthand, Frank Lampard score his record 203rd goal for Chelsea Football Club, and of course it had to have been a beautifully worked match winning goal coming from a perfectly timed run into the box.
It was one of the most touching moments of live sport I’ve ever seen, watching Frank run over to the fans and soaking up waves of pure passion, emanating from two thousand ecstatic screaming Cockneys. Unfortunately I was sitting in the home stand, adjacent to the Chelsea fans and had to limit my celebration to a falsely sombre applause. I still however, felt as much a part of the moment as that one-legged chap who ran on the pitch (escaping obviously the worst security in the world) to hug our iconic #8. A bizarre but rather telling scene I feel – not even the loss of limbs can hinder our love for Frank Lampard.
Of course that goal also means that a top 4 (and most likely top 3) position is completely secure and we can start anticipating (like my singing travelling companions) the Europa League final in Amsterdam on Wednesday night. After having lost 3 separate finals this season as well as two Cup semi-final ties, the Europa League is our last chance for silverware at the end of an ultimately disappointing, yet simultaneously promising season. I think a victory would allow us to philosophically reflect on the highs and lows of the last nine months and move forward with a sense of achievement and development with some important lessons learned, whilst defeat would have us wiping the slate clean and looking to start from scratch. I concede this is more of a quasi-poetic overview, rather than an honest objective outlining of the situation, however we’re all aware of the importance of momentum to a team’s mentality, and for Jose to return to a team still very much in the habit of winning Cup finals, I think should be important to the club. The opportunity to become the first side in history to hold both of UEFA’s major club competitions concurrently (if only for a few days), shouldn’t be disregarded either.
In complete contrast to the elation and to the pride that Saturday’s game brought to Chelsea, our opposition on Wednesday night will come into the game broken hearted, having lost arguably the biggest ‘O Clasico’ in recent history. A 92nd minute winner from Porto’s Kelvin knocked the Lisbon side back into 2nd place with only one round of fixtures to go. The pictures were moving as Benfica coach Jorge Jesus tearfully slumped to his knees on the touchline.
Consensus in Portugal is that Benfica have improved yearly since their current manager took charge in 2009, whilst Porto’s strength has fluctuated with the purchase and sale of Hulk and Radamel Falcao. Three years ago, Jesus’ stylish side were booted off the pitch by a physical Porto side (denying them the draw they needed to seal the title that night) before Andre Villas-Boas’ team steamrolled the division the following year. This season however, fan’s and pundit’s perception of the Lisbon outfit has been more positive. Both mentally and physically Benfica are a strong side and regardless of their domestic setback this weekend, Chelsea fans should expect to face a tougher side than the team we eliminated in the Quarter finals of the Champions League last season – Even though Jesus stated in his press conference after the game, his side’s failure to avoid defeat to Porto would “leave scars” ahead of Wednesday’s match.
The majority of previews being written for the final around Europe, regarding Chelsea specifically, mainly are focused on two players, for whom Chelsea paid Benfica over £40million.
The obvious star of the game is David Luiz, the man who led Chelsea to the final with goals in both legs of their semi, the second of which – a beautiful in-swinging 25 yard curler with his weaker foot – is a genuine contender for Chelsea’s goal of the season. Luiz has stepped up this year and transformed himself from the impulsive, slightly erratic player perhaps Benfica fans may remember, into a leader and a key player for this Chelsea team. All in all, I think David has been exceptional for us this season wherever/whenever he’s been selected and for reasons explained here: http://bluechampions.com/2013/05/03/why-mourinho-luiz-will-take-chelsea-back-to-the-top/… I think he’ll be integral to any future success that Chelsea will enjoy.
The other man being given the headlines is a player I feel (in spite of his red card this weekend) deserves this trophy more than anyone and could well be the man who wins it for us. Ramires’ story (in case anybody hasn’t read it before) is similar to a lot of South American professionals, in that he grew up in an extremely poor household, having to work daily on a building site to help provide for his family, whilst training whenever he could in the evenings. It’s that same energy and spirit that’s endeared him to Chelsea fans since his arrival in 2010.
Other than his talent and incredible stamina however, one reason Ramires’ name will be amongst the first on Benitez’ team sheet for sure, will be the fact he missed out on our Champions League final win last season through suspension, especially having done as much as anyone (bar Drogba perhaps) to get us there – assisting the Ivorian against Barcelona at Stamford Bridge and scoring that stunning, match-turning goal in the return leg. That wasn’t the first big game he was unlucky to miss either, having been injured for Brazil’s World Cup quarter final defeat against the Netherlands in 2010, with Coach Dunga offering up our #7s absence as a key excuse for the result. Wednesday’s re-union with the club that spring boarded his career in Europe should finally give Ramires the opportunity to star in a major European final and I very much hope that the result will make all of those long days as a teenager in Sao Paulo worthwhile.
I for one was particularly happy to see Benitez looking so relaxed and comfortable in his interview on Saturday. Now that the diabolical treatment he’s been given from Chelsea fans (and certain internet bloggers) and ceased, and with his position cleared up completely by the club, it seems he’s finally getting to properly enjoy working with this squad and it shows. We’re unbeaten in eight games, defending well, attacking well and although he hasn’t been able to implement any apparent style (understandable given all the rotation the fixture list has forced him into) I think the football has been pretty good to watch. Whether or not Chelsea win on Wednesday, I think the record will show Benitez to have a done a good job at the club. In our minds however, and I assume in his as well, this final is what determines whether all of the aggravation surrounding this “marriage of convenience” will have been worth it. I completely aware that it is wishful thinking on my part to expect a seconder for the following notion but I don’t care – Rafael Benitez deserves this trophy as much as any Chelsea fan or player for his work since November and I’d be extremely happy to see him lift it.
LINE-UPS AND PREDICTIONS
Given Saturday was unquestionably Benfica’s most important game of the season, I think it’s reasonable to assume their line-up will be extremely similar if not identical. The back five of goalkeeper Artur, Maxi Pereira, Luisao, Ezequiel Garay and Andre Almeida is well established. Pereira in particular I think is a great player; I’m always expecting him to soon be snapped up by a top European side – I don’t know why it never happens. Enzo Perez will play in midfield alongside former Chelsea-man Nemanja Matic, who has made great leaps forward this season (according to Ben Shave at least, my favourite ‘Portuguese football’ journalist). Young Argentine attackers Eduardo Salvio and Nico Gaitan are two of Benfica’s most dangerous attacking players and will probably start alongside either young Portuguese winger Ola John, or the veteran Pablo Aimar. Up front they have the choice of either Lima or Oscar Cardozo.
As for Chelsea, with captain John Terry missing once again for a European final, this time with an ankle injury, it’s looking as though Benitez will get to select what has seemingly become his preferred back four of Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic and Cole, with David Luiz starting in midfield. It may seem cruel not selecting Lampard after his heroics on Saturday, but the manager, having now achieved the top 4 target demanded of him, is unlikely to make a sentimental decision ahead the game that will ultimately have always meant the most to him personally. If he’s fit then I think it’s almost certain Mikel will play, meaning Ramires will start on the right and Oscar, who missed out in the Club World Cup final in December will make up the midfield three with Juan Mata. It might also seem harsh to leave out Victor Moses with the Nigerian having scored in his last four Europa League games, but in my opinion his premier league form hasn’t been at all consistent enough to warrant a starting place on Wednesday. I am sure however he’ll be used at some point to provide width in the absence of Eden Hazard
Benfica: Artur, Pereira, Luisao, Garay, Almeida, Perez, Matic, Salvio, Gaitan, John, Cardozo
Chelsea: Cech, Azpilicueta, Cahill, Ivanovic, Cole, Mikel, David Luiz, Ramires, Oscar, Mata, Torres
Despite what Jesus and Aimar have said leading up to the game, about there being “no favourites” and Chelsea being at their weakest in the “Abramovich era”, Benfica will know they’re the underdogs here. However, we have reasons to be concerned ourselves, with Hazard unavailable and those defeats in the Super Cup and CWC potentially playing on the minds of the players should we make a bad start.
Occasions like these however are where winning cultures count for more than almost anything else. This group are accustomed to winning on the big stage, obviously far more than Benfica and they’ll know that. Let’s not forget our coach is no stranger to big finals and his record isn’t exactly bad. I think Chelsea will win the game by two goals and I think Fernando Torres will score; I’ll also predict both Mikel and Ramires will have brilliant games and Juan Mata will be Man of the Match.
Here’s hoping we do all that’s needed to win a final. A final is not any other game. A final is where you take some risks and risk some gambles. Sometimes depending on the situation, you might even have to take the online casino gaming approach. And when you do that you will be the winner more often than not. Chelsea and Rafa Benitez know that only quite too well. Both the club and the manager have had their share of successes and failures in the final stage. It’s that pedigree that could separate these two teams. Chelsea for the win. Enjoy the game comrades and KTBFFH.