So in the end, last night was a result and a performance so fantastically typical of this Chelsea side in recent years, frustrating, tense, unfathomably inconsistent and yet simultaneously bestowed with moments of pure quality and of course it was never boring – not for even a second. And most importantly it ended how it always seems to, with John Terry and Frank Lampard raising the trophy elatedly above their heads. The 2013 Europa League is now Chelsea FC’s 11th major honour in 10 years and our second European Trophy in 12 months. We are the first club in history to hold both of UEFA’s major competitions at the same time and though the chants in the terraces may be slightly tongue-in-cheek from now on, for the next twelve months at least, ‘Champions of Europe’ we shall remain.
One of the most famous stories of European football (and one which has become legendary to the torment of our opponents last night) is the ‘Curse of Bela Guttmann’. The Jewish-Hungarian Benfica coach who left the club on bad terms in 1962 having just won his 2nd consecutive European Cup. He told club officials at the time that they wouldn’t win a European final for another 100 years and half a century on, his prediction has held. At times Benfica’s luck seemed as though it genuinely was cursed, as they did everything but score in the first 20 minutes. Few could deny also that for the majority of the game Benfica outplayed Chelsea in terms of pressing and passing and creativity – if not for some unlucky slips and bad ‘final third’ decisions we could’ve lost the game in the opening quarter. The online betting sites I checked had us generally at 4/6 to win last night but those odds must surely have lengthened across the duration of the first 45. Fortunately our incredible last-ditch, panic-mode defending skills remain from last year.
Benfica dominated the first half. We were standing off their centre halves and Nemanja Matic, allowing them to play from the back, whilst they had us under constant pressure, forcing us into aimless passes downfield , taking no advantage of Mata’s off the ball movement. After half time however, Chelsea immediately pressed higher and began to stretch Benfica further. The first goal when it came was atrociously defended by the Portuguese side as they allowed the ball to come right down the middle of the pitch from a Cech throw out and a simple Mata flick on. But the finish was sensational – surely the biggest and best goal of Fernando Torres’ Chelsea career so far. He showed fantastic strength and speed to break away from Luisao and then wonderful composure to round Artur in goal. Torres is clearly the happiest he’s been right now since he came to Chelsea and it has shown in his football. A few months ago, most Chelsea fans were calling for/half expecting his departure this summer, now it seems though the he has decided he has a lot more to say and lot more goals to score in a blue shirt – and I’m very much looking forward to them.
Benfica equalised through a blasted Oscar Cardozo penalty after Azpilicueta was unfortunately penalised for a handball (spoiling an otherwise solid performance, keeping Nico Gaitan quiet), before both Frank Lampard and Cardozo came close to sealing the trophy with phenomenal long range efforts, with the latter drawing a great save from Petr Cech. Then in the 92nd minute, with Benitez and the supporters surely beginning to mull over extra time substitutions, Ramires won a corner. It was a nice piece of play from the Brazilian after an honestly poor performance. And of course it was Juan Mata who swung in the delivery to the back post, where it was met perfectly by Branislav Ivanovic, to head it in to far corner. According to the Serb it was the single greatest moment of his career and it according to me, it is a 100% fully deserved accolade for a player who has embodied the resilience and the passion and the quality that has seen Chelsea go unbeaten in major finals since 2008.
The emotion in the ground obviously didn’t begin to compare with Munich but the scenes following the final whistle were still fantastic to watch. Lampard holding aloft the trophy in front of our supporters, Paulo Ferreira and Ramires celebrating with their sons and David Luiz sportingly consoling his former teammates before rejoicing with his current colleagues. This obviously meant so much to the players and it’s no less than they deserve after such a difficult season.
Perhaps the most touching scene however was the unanimous appreciative applause that the Chelsea fans gave to Rafa Benitez when he stood alone with the trophy. There has been, no doubt, a fair sized group of Chelsea fans that have treated him despicably throughout his tenure, but generally I think the overall apathy towards Benitez has been overstated. I’d even go as far as to say I think the majority of Chelsea fans have always respected his talents and achievements and never bore stupid childish grudges. Now that he gets to leave with his head held high as only the third manager in history to have won European trophies with three different clubs, I think he can also rest assured that he’s leaving with the respect and the appreciation from the Chelsea fan base for a difficult job, particularly well done.
One other story from last night (since confirmed officially) is that Frank Lampard will be staying at the club for one more season. There existed, in my head at least, a good number of pros and cons for the retention of Lampard on the squad list for next season but irrespective of them all, the fact of the matter is that Lampard has earned the right to stay. He is the perfect professional and an obvious inspiration to all of the young players in the team. His presence will no doubt help Jose Mourinho settle back into his old job that extra bit more easily, too. The Chelsea goal record will always have been the big one on Lampard’s agenda, but now he’s only 11 goals away from overtaking Thierry Henry as the Premier League’s 3rd all time highest scorer! At this stage, who could possibly be stupid enough to bet against him?
For me the whole evening was perfectly summed up by a single nine word statement allegedly made by Eden Hazard after the game: “People questioned me, why Chelsea? This is the answer”. And it’s a pretty resounding, definitive answer if you ask me. We may struggle at times, we may get into trouble and we might get stitched up from time to time, but we win. These blokes are categorically, undeniably, full on, relentless, bona fide winners and long may they continue to be.
Congratulations Chelsea FC – Europa League Winner 2013 – KTBFFH