Chelsea's indomitable will to win nets it another title
There has been a lack of logic about Chelsea from the moment in 2003 when Roman Abramovich bought the club. First it had unthinkable amounts of money, and then unthinkable amounts of chaos as manager followed manager and planning became shorter and shorter term. Everybody agrees -- probably even Abramovich himself -- that it is no way to run a football club, and yet what has emerged amid all the flux is a side with an astonishing spirit, a team that seemingly has the ability at times just to decide it will win and shrug off anything that might prevent that happening. Winning the Europa League may essentially be a consolation prize, but what a consolation.
In Amsterdam, Chelsea had to take on a slick, neat passing side in Benfica. It had to take on its own fatigue -- this was its 67th game of the season. And it probably even felt it didn't have the rub of some of the refereeing decisions, most notably the penalty Bjorn Kuipers chose not to award when Fernando Torres seemed to be held by Luisao (even though Torres then forfeited most of his claim to sympathy by diving preposterously). And yet it prevailed -- and did so with two goals that seemed almost designed to call to mind the glories of last season.
For long spells, Chelsea looked in danger of being outclassed. Benfica passed and passed and passed, but for some reason it didn't shoot. Again and again it worked itself into fine positions and again and again it dallied or played an extra pass, allowing Chelsea to get men back to block. Chelsea looked sluggish and weary, and yet it resisted until, just before the hour, it took the lead with a goal that was so simple it was almost a parody of route one football. Petr Cech hurled the ball forwards, Juan Mata got a slight touch and Torres suddenly was through, shaking off Luisao to find himself in on the goalkeeper with the sort of space he had in the closing seconds of the Champions League semifinal against Barcelona last season. This time, as then, he rounded the goalkeeper and knocked the ball into the empty net. The nature of the goal also said much about his strength, the power he has rediscovered under Benitez -- something the manager promised he would restore in his very first press conference at the club.
There were further setbacks to overcome. First, Oscar Cardozo's penalty, hammered in after Cesar Azpilicueta had been whistled for a handball. Then Cech had to make a superb tip-over to keep out a dipping effort from Cardozo, and when Lampard crashed a shot against the bar from 30 yards there must have been a thought that maybe this time it wasn't going to be Chelsea's day. But in injury time there came a right-wing corner at the end at which the Chelsea fans were massed. This was Munich and Didier Drogba all over again, except this time it was Branislav Ivanovic, who had missed the final against Bayern last year with suspension, who won the header, looping it back across Artur and into the corner.
No side had ever won the Europa League the year after the Champions League, and Chelsea thus, through a quirk of scheduling, become the first side to hold both simultaneously, while Torres and Mata are also defending world and European champions with their country -- a staggering statistic that is unlikely ever to be repeated. Benitez becomes only the second coach after Udo Lattek to win European trophies at three different clubs, while Chelsea joins Juventus, Ajax and Bayern Munich in having won all three European trophies.
At the end, as Benitez cradled the trophy, he was applauded by the Chelsea fans. They will never love him, but the boos that greeted him when he took charge of his first match, against Manchester City back in November, have given way to a grudging respect. Benitez himself was restrained and gave no great statement of vindication, even though in his six months at the club, he took it to two semifinals as well as a Europa League and Champions League qualification. "Hopefully some people will see it's not bad," he said. "If you analyze everything, we won the Europa League with one striker for every single game. We managed with players with yellow cards, if you put everything together you will realize how difficult it was with a squad that was not too big. With one or two injuries we had just 18 players."
For Benfica, who after going unbeaten for 28 games of the 30-game Portuguese season lost the league lead on a last-minute winner against Porto over the weekend, there was only gloom and the knowledge that the Curse of Bela Guttmann goes on. In 1962, having been denied a bonus for winning a second successive European Cup, the Hungarian flounced away from Benfica vowing that it wouldn't win another European title in 100 years. 51 years and seven finals on, his promise still holds good. Jorge Jesus, the present Benfica coach, spoke of having two finals left: the final game of the league season and the Portuguese Cup final, and it seems likely he will sign a new contract this week.
Benitez, meanwhile, heads off into the unknown, having done an extraordinary job given the situation when he took over. This is a team that simply keeps winning big games by force of will, and that seems inspired by flux and adversity.