Chelsea will look to advance to the UEFA Champions League semifinals tonight after hosting Benfica in the second leg of their tie. The Blues' 1-0 win in Portugal gives them a solid foundation and are favorites to move on to the semifinals, where they will meet Barcelona after they beat AC Milan 3-1 yesterday to advance.
There are far too many opinions out there that have already written Chelsea into a showdown with Barca. After all, it is something many footballing fans outside of the two clubs would like to see, hoping for a repeat of the epic match between the two sides in the semis three years ago.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves too far.
Chelsea still have a formidable task at home to take care of today. Though they have the upper hand on Benfica, the Portuguese will not go down easily. You can expect a fight from them to the very end.
However, with that perspective in mind, there has rarely been a time over the past few months when a European game has not felt like a struggle going into it. This honestly is the first since Chelsea dismantled Genk 5-0 last year. So why not embrace the optimism they currently have going for them and finally expect win rather than hope for it.
Here are four reasons Chelsea will advance past Benfica today.
It may no longer be the fortress it was under Jose Mourinho, as Stamford Bridge has seen its fair share of losses over the past few seasons, but to European competition this year it has been an unwelcomed sight.
Chelsea have been as close to perfect as you can be at the Bridge with four wins and no losses and an even more impressive record of outscoring opponents 14-1! Even the great Barcelona and Real Madrid cannot brag about such perfection.
Benfica has been very strong all tournament long, especially on the offensive front, but Chelsea already shut them out in Portugal and expect to do the same in London.
The in-form David Luiz will be out with an injury suffered over the weekend, but Gary Cahill has proven before that his partnership with John Terry is strong enough to see out the clean sheet.
With the 1-0 lead, it is all on Benfica to make something happen. This is the exact type of game plan Chelsea love, luring the opposition deep into their half and then springing a counter to poach a goal and ensure passage to the semis.
There are few teams that are better at “parking the bus” than the Blues. With the size and experience in the back unmatched by any team, there is little hope of beating them with consistent buildup play. Benfica’s best chance is to hit a wonder strike, which is really the only thing that has beat Chelsea when they play with this game plan.
There is no guarantee if Lampard will even start, but he has a good chance of being on the pitch for the first whistle given the stakes of the game. Few had objections to him not playing in the first leg, including Lampard himself. The pace of Benfica would have been too much for him to handle.
However, if Chelsea are to play back and deep, then Lamps is the best option to have on the field.
Possession will probably favor Benfica as they carry the ball and pass it back to reset their attack. But the few chances Chelsea get, they need to make the most of. Lampard is the player who can make that happen.
He is currently second on the team in passing percentage and average key passes per game. His whole career has been defined by his ability to make the decisive pass leading to goals or chances on goal. He can quickly get the ball up to the wingers flaying forward or whomever the striker is, keeping Benfica honest or making them pay.
Furthermore, he also is one of the most reliable players with the ball at his feet, getting dispossessed once a game and averaging less than one turnover.
It has been beaten into the ground now, but we still should give credit where credit is due. Roberto Di Matteo has done a fantastic job turning around what looked like one of the most helpless clubs left in the competition into a contender for the title.
The tactical and philosophical changes are all good and well, moving away from the inept 4-3-3 to a more comfortable 4-2-3-1 and ridding the indirect approach for the downhill style Chelsea has always played with, but his real accomplishment has been bringing back a winning attitude to the locker room.
Under Andre Villas-Boas there was never the sense that Chelsea deserved to win every game. No matter whether it was against a Championship side in the FA Cup or Napoli in Champions League, the feeling was always that the club was lucky to get the victory.
That is not the case anymore. Since Di Matteo overturned the two-goal deficit against the Italians, fans are expecting a win every time the players step on the pitch. A loss to City and a tie to Spurs had fans angry and dismissive as opposed to complacent—the way we were few months ago.
This is the attitude Chelsea fans should have. There should never be acceptance in defeat or the kind of back-patting that “at least they played a good game” infers. Chelsea should win today and every game for the rest of the season.
We have Di Matteo to thank for restoring that belief.
Corny and utterly cliché is how I think of the title of this slide, but heck, it’s what we as sports fans live for.
We all remember back to 2009 when Chelsea faced Barca in the 2009 Champions League semifinals at Stamford Bridge. The Blues, trying for their second straight final, hosted Barcelona in the second leg of the semis after holding the Catalans to a 0-0 draw at home.
Chelsea played a near-perfect game as they could, “parking the bus” like few had ever seen. They frustrated the Spaniards, who were so used to passing the ball into the goal, that the shots they were given from 25 yards out seemed to be from a mile.
It is hard to think back about how robbed Chelsea was.
There were four separate calls for penalties from the Blues denied, with at least three of which any fan, no matter your allegiance, felt should have been called. But instead UEFA had its way and let Barca through from a brilliant stoppage-time strike from Andres Iniesta.
The tables are a little turned this time around as Barca are clear favorites to win it all and Chelsea are a doggy outsider, probably the least likely out of the four remaining. But the Blues have a history of frustrating Barca with their physical and in-your-face play, something Messi and Co. are not used to seeing in Spain.
Everything is lined up perfectly for Chelsea to have the rematch they have been waiting for since that night three years ago. For no reason other than the motivation behind that, tonight they will advance to the semis.
Let me begin this by first addressing the folks who thought I was cold and callous toward Benfica before the first leg.
Did you see the score? I am not suggesting that the Portuguese league is nothing more than a benign place for youth to develop, but you really think it is on par with the talent in England and elsewhere?
Chelsea got the upper hand in Portugal, but it means nothing if they cannot complete it today. A win is the easy way through, but a tie is all they need—the exact way Chelsea like to play.
So how confident are you about today's game? Have you already put in time off from work to make the trip to Nou Camp?
As always, please leave your comments below and thanks for reading!
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