Europa League Final: Breaking Down Benfica vs. Chelsea
Never before has a club followed up a Champions League win with victory in UEFA’s second-most prestigious competition, but that’s exactly what Chelsea will be out to do when they face Benfica in Wednesday’s Europa League Final in Amsterdam.
It’s not exactly the ideal pattern.
No doubt the Blues would have preferred to put together a more serious defense of last spring’s European Cup triumph, but after an early Champions League exit and difficult start to the season that had them outside the Premier League’s top four, they have managed to right the ship and will conclude the campaign with both a third-place finish and European final.
It could certainly have been worse, and Chelsea fans can take heart that things are trending upwards for their club.
Benfica, meanwhile, come into Wednesday’s final on the back of their first Portuguese Primeira Liga defeat of the season—a 1-0 loss away to Porto that now has them trailing the reigning champions by a single point with one match to play.
With the title now out of their hands the Europa League will now have added importance for the Lisbon giants, and following six straight defeats in European finals they’ll be looking to start a new streak at Amsterdam Arena.
This may not be the continent’s showcase event, but with clubs as esteemed as Benfica and Chelsea contesting Wednesday’s match, this year’s Europa League Final may just seem bigger than it really is.
The football certainly promises to be compelling, and over the next few slides we’ll break down the key elements of a contest that offers a European trophy at the end of it.
Paths to the Final
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Won 1-0 at Bayer Leverkusen
Won 2-1 at home to Bayern Leverkusen
Won 1-0 at home to Bordeaux
Won 3-2 at Bordeaux
Won 3-1 at home to Newcastle
Drew 1-1 at Newcastle
Lost 1-0 at Fenerbahce
Won 3-1 at home to Fenerbahce
Won 1-0 at Sparta Prague
Drew 1-1 at home to Sparta Prague
Lost 1-0 at Steaua Bucharest
Won 3-1 at home to Steaua Bucharest
Won 3-1 at Rubin Kazan
Lost 3-2 at home to Rubin Kazan
Won 2-1 at Basel
Won 3-1 at home to Basel
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Benfica manager Jorge Jesus has no new injury worries ahead of the Europa League Final, although right-back Maxi Pereira is suspended due to an accumulation of yellow cards and will play no part in Wednesday’s match.
Chelsea boss Rafael Benitez will be monitoring both John Terry and Eden Hazard in the run-up to kickoff in Amsterdam.
Terry, the club captain, picked up an ankle injury against Aston Villa on Saturday and had to be taken off on a stretcher, while Hazard, a PFA Player of the Season finalist, has a hamstring strain.
Although it’s unlikely Terry will see the pitch in the Dutch capital, Hazard should at least be on the bench come game-time.
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With Maxi Pereira suspended, it looks as though Benfica manager Jorge Jesus will hand a start to Lorenzo Melgarejo.
A veteran of Paraguay’s U-20 side and a recently-capped full Albirroja international, Melgarejo, 22, can play as both a winger and a left-back, and it’s in the latter position that he’ll be deputizing on Wednesday.
Brazilian playmaker Oscar will likely line up opposite his fellow South American, but Victor Moses could get time opposite Melgarejo as well, and the ability of both Chelsea players to make the Paraguayan uncomfortable will have a lot to do with their fortunes in Amsterdam.
Going the other way, Nico Gaitan will look to get in behind Chelsea right-back Cesar Azpilicueta, who could be one of the Premier League side’s weak spots in Amsterdam.
Benfica Will Win If...
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Benfica have scored 14 goals during the Europa League knockout stages, six of which have come from Oscar Cardozo.
Getting the ball to the towering Paraguayan will be paramount for the Portuguese side on Wednesday, although they could certainly do with an offensive contribution from one or two of Gaitan, Lima and Eduardo Salvio.
On the defensive side of the ball, Benfica will have to do better than Basel in interpreting the various looks Chelsea’s trio of playmakers will throw at them.
Fernando Torres may be the Blues’ top goalscorer in the competition, but the line of Moses, Oscar and Juan Mata that will operate just behind him will have the Benfica defense at sixes and sevens unless they can keep their shape.
Chelsea Will Win If...
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It sometimes seems as though Chelsea progressed this far in the Europa League without breaking much of a sweat.
Yes, they were pressed to the limit at times (especially against Rubin Kazan), but they didn’t always seem to care all that much about the competition, either, and the only way they’ll triumph over a very good Benfica side is if they can muster some intensity in Amsterdam.
Hazard, should he be unable to play, will certainly be missed, but Moses is an energetic player, and with David Luiz likely to operate in central midfield, the Blues will have some zip in the centre of the park as well.
When the Chelsea playmakers are buzzing, they are a difficult unit to handle, although it’s not often they’ve gone up again a defensive pairing as competent as Luisao and Ezequiel Garay.
Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic will also have to ensure Cardozo doesn’t get away from them, and whoever is marking the Paraguay striker on set pieces will need to stick to him like glue.
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Projected Benfica XI: Artur; Almeida, Garay, Luisao, Melgarejo; Matic, Perez; Salvio, Lima, Gaitan; Cardozo
Projected Chelsea XI: Cech; Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole; Ramires, David Luiz; Oscar, Mata, Moses; Torres