Ivanovic Heads Late Winner as Chelsea Edge Benfica to Take Europa League
For the second season in a row Chelsea claimed a European trophy in the most dramatic of circumstances.
A year ago, Didier Drogba's late goal denied Bayern Munich and took the Champions League final to extra-time and ultimately penalties. This time it was Branislav Ivanovic who played hero, heading the winner in the third and final minute of added time as the Blues beat Benfica to the Europa League title.
Rafa Benitez might be among the most unpopular managers to work at Chelsea, but he'll leave the club this summer having led them to a fifth European title and with his name etched on their history.
The vision of Ivanovic's powerful far-post header, which saw the defender flex his considerable neck muscles to arc the ball into the opposite top corner, will now be replayed alongside that of Drogba's winning spot-kick in Munich.
Benfica had seconds to respond and a brief glimpse at an equaliser, but their real chance to win this final had already been and gone.
The Portuguese side outplayed Chelsea for long periods and had the better of territory and possession—they had 11 attempts on targets to Chelsea's seven (UEFA). If not for their profligacy in front of goal, Benfica would surely have lifted their first European title since the class of Eusebio won the European Cup in 1962.
Oscar Cardozo, Nicolas Gaitan and Eduardo Salvio were among those with early glimpses of goal at the Amsterdam Arena Wednesday, but none could find the poise and precision to give Benfica what their pressure deserved.
The longer Benfica went without making good on their dominance, the more you fancied Chelsea to repeat the trick they performed against Bayern a year ago. And when Frank Lampard's swerving shot drew a fine save from Artur on 38 minutes, the Blues were an outstretched couple of fingers away from 1-0 lead nobody in the stadium could have justified.
The teams emerged from the break with Benfica still in full flow. Jorge Jesus' team thought they'd finally broken through when Cardozo headed in on 51 minutes, but the Paraguayan was rightly ruled offside.
A short while later Chelsea got the goal we all knew was coming. Juan Mata played provider, sending through Fernando Torres to round the goalkeeper and squeeze a shot home from a tight angle. It was Torres' sixth Europa League goal in nine appearances this season, and there would be no undermining the quality of the opposition this time.
For all his humblings, you have to admire Torres for his continued application. The Europa League has been a playground of old for El Nino this season, and he's been as responsible as any player for their progress.
Torres' goal might have done for Benfica, but they responded positively and won a penalty soon after when Cesar Azpilicueta handled in the box. Cardozo stuttered in his run up before crashing the ball down the middle to send the red masses behind the goal into delirium.
From there the game leveled out. Both sides pressed and probed, but the thought of extra time loomed large, and the risks taken by both were reduced. There was still time for Lampard to crash a late thunderbolt against the crossbar, but 30 minutes more looked certain.
And then came Ivanovic, rising at the back post in the dying seconds of added time to win it for Chelsea and continue their theme of glory of the last.
It was a moment to break Benfica hearts and continue their long wait for European glory, but they look back on a big chance missed and have only their poor finishing to blame.
Chelsea, meanwhile, continue their ascendancy. A Europa League victory doesn't come close to a Champions League title, but it reaffirms the club's status as a major player on the continent and won't hurt in attracting new players this summer.
As they celebrate the success tonight, Chelsea fans might even allow themselves a moment of appreciation for the manager they never gave a chance to. Unlike many before him, he'll leave having won the club a major trophy.
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