For a season filled with so much promise, many of us could be forgiven for having low expectations heading into this match. I can admit I didn't exactly look forward to this encounter with the same mixture of excitement and trepidation as last year's Champions League final. With 46,163* in attendance Chelsea, reigning European Champions, began the match with the type of gusto you'd reserve for a cold, wet evening in Stoke.
*Perhaps the biggest farce of all, UEFA setting aside 26,000 tickets for delegates, leaving Chelsea fans with a pathetic 9,800 to split amongst some 30,000 traveling Blues. Ridiculous.
The first half was a classic case of cold feet mixed with apathy, with a sprinkle of lethargy on top. In short, we were dreadful and Benfica were more than willing to have us by the scruff of our necks on a number of occasions. But for all their incisive work to create chances, the Portuguese outfit were left to rue their luck as chance after chance went unrewarded. Chelsea, meanwhile, looked to play the ball long to Fernando Torres, in the hopes of hitting Benfica on the counter. For 45 minutes, this strategy looked pointless. A number of Benfica players, including Cardozo and Nico Gaitan had chances within close quarters that failed to find the back of the net, either due to some excellent blocking, or karmic good fortune. Time and time again, Petr Cech was off his line, cleaning up mistakes.
At the intermission, many could be forgiven for feeling this was simply not Chelsea's night. With Benitez short of genuine options on the bench, it appeared the squad would be forced to conjure goals by making some tactical adjustments. Those changes came in the form of a higher defensive line as the second half commenced. But alas, Chelsea were coughing possession up immediately, like six seconds immediately, and conceded three free kicks in the first two minutes. Gross. Benfica were clearly in control early in the second half, and had a goal disallowed for offside, though replays suggest it might have been a harsh judgement on the part of the linesman.**
**These refs, my goodness.
For sixty minutes, the match appeared to be teetering on the verge of Benfica getting a result. With better chances created, more fluidity in the final third, and more time on the ball, the stats and flow of the match suggested the Portuguese would find the precision necessary to get the lead. But as luck would have it, Chelsea struck first, against the run of play. Indeed, Fernando Torres, previously Señor Zorres, shrugged off Luisao and slipped in behind the Benfica defense to score the ultimate slow-motion goal. The finish itself was excellent, and not enough can be said for Fernando's improved strength in holding himself up against the physicality of Garay and Luisao. Where he might have lost a step in the speed department, he appears to be adapting his game to handle the responsibility of taking on two center backs.
Also, that celebration. I mean what else can be said. Hilarious.
1-0 to Chelsea on sixty minutes and we're doing the happy dance. Torres is now zipping around the pitch with verve and Benfica appear to be on the back foot. Fernando earned a free kick in a dangerous area outside the box, only for Mata to smash into the wall. With Chelsea beginning to assert themselves, it would conspire that Benfica would equalize courtesy of a silly penalty from Cesar Azpilicueta. Really, this one wasn't even worth debating. Just an overall dumb play from the right back which saw Cardozo take a century to line up, run toward, and eventually put past Petr Cech. It bears mentioning that he appeared to tweak his ankle on the shot and was incapable of celebrating his equalizer. 1-1, and after what seemed like an eternity of boringness, the match had come to life and was expertly set up for some drama.
While Benfica used their three allotted substitutions in the second half, Rafa continued to play with his starting eleven. We also appeared to drop deeper to prevent getting caught out on a counter attack, which suggested that Rafa was playing for extra time. But Frank Lampard was not. No sir. After a stinging strike in the first half which almost slipped past Artur, Sir Frank unleashed another rocket that hit the frame of the goal and rattled back into play. Absolutely vicious strikes which you can always count on. That moment could have set the game to bed, but unfortunately for Frank and the Chelsea supporters in Amsterdam, there were still minutes remaining to play. Chelsea continued pushing forward for an opportunity to strike, with Benfica responding in kind. End to end stuff and with three added minutes Chelsea secured a corner courtesy of some tireless running from Ramires (who, by the way, was called for offside at least 86 times).
The ensuing corner kick, with seconds on the clock was delivered high and deep to the back post. With Cahill making his trademark foray to the near post, the ball floated gently toward the onrushing head of Branislav Ivanovic who rose, connected, and ................. SCORED. Just like that, Chelsea had taken the lead in the most dramatic of fashions. Blue flares were ignited, the chants were louder, and everyone for a second felt like we had won the Cup. But Benfica weren't resting on their laurels and launched one final attack which almost caught Chelsea napping, were it not for GARY FREAKING CAHILL. Look, I've been around the game long enough and I've seen some excellent plays by a number of premier athletes. But that block/tackle by Gaz was, simply put, perfection. The timing, the tenacity, the precision. Absolutely perfect, and saved Chelsea from the indignity of having to play out extra time.
Some other thoughts:
- Rafa got the team sheet to start right, and might have been afforded the chance to make some subs if he wanted. But he didn't. Till the end, Rafa being Rafa.
- Ramires will take a lot of criticism for his performance today, but you can't expect a player that's been performing in a central position to have the timing and alignment down for a winger's responsibilities. Sure, he could and and should have done better at times. But I'll give him his customary A for effort and D+ for decision making.
- Frank Lampard confirming that a one-year deal is on the table. Talk about the perfect icing on the cake. Delighted for him to get his hands on another trophy.
- Honorable mention for Ashley Cole tonight. He didn't put a foot wrong, positioned himself for every interception, challenged in the air for whatever was in his area, and had another outstanding display to add to his CV. We want Frank for another year, but should be grateful that Ash is signed on.
- Fernando, take a bow. You did what you had to, and should have earned a penalty in the second half to boot. Well done sir, and congratulations on breaking the 20 goal barrier this year. Finally putting the demons of the past in the rear view (I hope).
- The look on Michel Platini's face as he handed out those medals. Priceless.
- Anyone banging on about how 'lucky' Chelsea are, simply, doesn't understand the game. These players have proven over the last 12 months that they're warriors. The determination to win, despite starting poorly, underlines the commitment these players have demonstrated is not a fluke.
- John Terry, why put the kit on? You just know you're getting stick for it.
- Congratulations to Roman, Emenalo, and Buck, who will now feel vindicated for replaced Robbie with Rafa. Not that this in any way covers up the scars of what was done, but still, they won't care in the slightest.
- We're the reigning Champions League winners, and the new Europa League winners. If Europe descends into a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust in the next three days, well, you get the idea.