After securing a place in next season’s Champions League on Saturday, Chelsea are heading into the Europa League final on a high, looking to claim their first piece of silverware this season.
Standing in their way are Benfica of Lisbon, who enter this match at one of the lowest points of their season. Heading into stoppage time on Saturday with the score locked at 1-1 at the Dragon Stadium in Porto, Benfica were heading towards their 33rd Portuguese league title. Then a wonderful winner from Kelvin in the 93rd minute for the home side put the trophy in their hands. FC Porto lead the Portuguese Primeira Liga by 1 point heading into the final match on Sunday.
Chelsea ended last season on a high by winning the Champions League and I am confident they can do a similar repeat and win the Europa League. Bookmaker Unibet have priced Chelsea’s match odds at a tasty 2.45 to win the trophy in 90 minutes. For those who are a more conservative with their bets, Chelsea are 1.80 to win the trophy via any method (normal time, extra time or penalties). I think Chelsea are overpriced a bit here.
Rafa Benitez has taken a large squad with him, which includes the injured John Terry and ineligible Demba Ba. Perhaps a boost to team unity and morale if anything. John Terry will be missing his third successive final for Chelsea, having missed last season’s UEFA Champions League final and this season’s UEFA Super Cup through suspension.
Chelsea head into this match on good form, despite not thrashing any of their opponents recently. They were 2-1 winners at Aston Villa over the weekend to make it seven wins for their last eight in all competitions. Tottenham’s 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge make them the only side not to lose to Chelsea during this run.
This is Chelsea’s 68th match of the season with their final Premier League game to be played on Sunday, at home to Everton. It is possible, although unlikely that they could face Arsenal in a 3rd place playoff in the Premier League in both teams finish on the exact same points, goal difference and goals scored. A 0-0 draw with Everton, matched by a 2-1 win for Arsenal would make that happen.
Chelsea lost the Community Shield 3-2 to Manchester City in their first competitive games of the season before losing the UEFA Super Cup 4-1 to Atlético Madrid at the end of August. In December they were eliminated at the group stage of the Champions League, behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, before later in the month being beaten 1-0 by Brazilian side Corinthians in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup.
Rafa Benitez’s side were eliminated at the semi-final stage of the League Cup by Swansea City, 2-0 on aggregate in January and them eliminated from the FA Cup at the same stage, by Manchester City last month. The highest they can finish in the Premier League this season is 3rd. The Europa League is the eighth tournament Chelsea have entered during the 2012-13 season and the only one left they can win.
Benfica’s form hasn’t been too impressive of late. They have thrown away a 4 point lead at the top of the league to put the title in FC Porto’s control heading into the final game. This started with a dismal 1-1 draw at home to Estoril last Monday. They hadn’t been too convincing in a 2-1 win at Marítimo in their prior league match.
Right-back Maxi Pereira is suspended for the Portuguese side and will be a big loss for Benfica. The Uruguayan is both good at defending and going forward. Oscar, Juan Mata or Victor Moses, whomever starts on the left for Chelsea may look for joy against the replacement full-back.
On the opposite flank for Chelsea, Eden Hazard has been ruled out. That could offer an opportunity for Victor Moses to play down the wing, or Ramires going into that role with the potential for Frank Lampard and David Luiz to play a central midfield partnership.
Fernando Torres has no competition for his striker role with Demba Ba cup-tied. The Spaniard has 5 goals in 8 games in this competition.
Benfica have a number of talented attacking players. Oscar Cardozo takes a lot of the plaudits, although the Paraguayan does lack space and tends to rely on penalties in the games I’ve seen him play against the top clubs. He does have a good left-foot on him and good in the air, I won’t deny him that.
Collins John’s brother Ola is a pacey option down the left wing but I’m not convinced by his final ball. He will only be a threat if Chelsea defend poorly down that side.
Nico Gaitán has been linked to Manchester United in the past and is a talented player. Quick with his feet and succeeds against defenders with quick, intricate passes with team mates in and around the opposition penalty area. Also a threat running at players. Potentially Benfica’s biggest weapon in this game.
Nemanja Matić is another player I really rate in the Benfica team. A tall, combative player who’s had a lot of game time following the sale of Javi García to Manchester City, Matić is good at turning defence into attack. It could be ex-Benfica player David Luiz lining up against the Serbian in which the current Benfica player could be looking to catch the Brazilian out of position for a counter attack.
Goalkeeper Artur is a good shot stopper and one of the better goalkeepers Benfica have had in recent seasons.
There is no reason why the English Premier League side should not beat their Portuguese opponents in this match. The Eagles are coming off of a hard fought and tough to take defeat at their rivals, whilst Chelsea are on a good run heading into this game.
The Blues have an opportunity to join a unique list of clubs; Ajax, Bayern Munich and Juventus if they win the Europa League in being the only clubs to have won all three of Europe’s major trophies – the Champions League/European Cup, Europa League/UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup.
Liverpool were the last English side to win the Europa League, back in 2001. Benfica have gone 51 years without lifting a European trophy having finished runners-up in their last six finals. Chelsea beat Benfica 3-1 in the quarter-finals of last season’s Champions League.