All of Europe watched in awe earlier in the week as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund treated us to some of the finest football we have seen this season in their respective Champions League semifinals.
Yet, as the focus turned to the Europa League, we came crashing back down to earth. Do not be fooled by the late goals at St Jakob-Park, this was one drab affair.
The competition is billed as Europe’s second biggest club cup competition, but if Basel vs. Chelsea was a major European semifinal, then please, wake me now.
For Chelsea fans, the contrast in European campaigns must be painful. From the drama of historic comebacks against Napoli through to defeating Barcelona in the Champions League semis and subsequently lifting the trophy last term, they’ve been subjected to something more akin to a Zenith Data Systems Cup campaign in the Europa League.
It’s all been self-inflicted of course, with the club’s feeble defence of the European Cup seeing them crash out of the group stages of the competition in December.
They shouldn’t require any motivation, but if the Chelsea players needed any to claim a top-four spot in the league and thus a seat at Europe’s top table once more, then the Europa League is it.
They have faced Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan, and despite the odd wobble, they have by and large strolled their way to the semis. On Thursday’s evidence, the Blues are going to coast to another piece of silverware, too.
How can that be? Surely for a competition of any magnitude, the latter stages should be more testing for any team, regardless of the quality within its ranks, right? Not in the Europa League, it would seem.
Chelsea were in total control against Basel—the team who ended Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes in the previous rounds. The Blues out-witted and out-fought their opponents, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.
Victor Moses opened the scoring on 12 minutes and from that point, Rafa Benitez’s side set about playing the game out. Had it not been for a very weak penalty claim late on, it would have probably been enough.
Where was the anxiety? Where were the heart-in-mouth moments? Instead we were treated to one team in total control, knowing their pedestrian pace was enough to see them through. All this in what was a major European semifinal—or so we were told.
It’s at this stage, with silverware on the line, that managers field their strongest lineup—niggling injuries or not. Benitez, however, was able to rest Juan Mata, continue his experiment with Davis Luiz in holding midfield and watch his team come out deserved winners.
The one bit of class came when the Brazilian, Luiz, scored with the game’s last kick—a fine free-kick worthy of winning any fixture. That moment apart, there was little to stir the senses, and we can probably expect the same in the return leg May 2 at Stamford Bridge.
Call it snobbery, plain ignorance or what you will—the Europa League may put another trophy on the honours list, but it’s one Chelsea fans will forget in a hurry if they do indeed make it that far.