Jose Mourinho may be returning to his post at Chelsea, but it can never be said that ousted manager Rafael Benitez failed to bring a championship to Stamford Bridge.
The embattled interim boss led Chelsea to a 2-1 victory over Benfica in Wednesday's Europa League championship game, as the Blues pulled away in just about the most thrilling fashion possible. Branislav Ivanovic scored on a beautiful header during injury time to gut-punch the Portugal-based club.
Wednesday was Chelsea's first Europa League championship. With their triumph, the English club became the first team to ever capture all four European trophies.
While Chelsea were the more talented side, many saw the victory as a surprise. The Blues were going through an untold amount of turmoil prior to Wednesday's match, with Mourinho being announced as the next skipper for the outgoing Benitez.
As for Benfica, they cannot be disappointed with their strong run through the Europa League tournament. Jorge Jesus’ side was dominant for much of the match, and they proved they belonged against a top Premier League squad. There is much promise on both sides, but for now they will bask (or wallow) in what happened in the interim.
With that in mind, here is a quick breakdown of a few things we learned from Chelsea's victory.
Gary Cahill Remains Underrated
It's been a long road toward stardom for Gary Cahill. The 27-year-old defender spent much of his early career languishing with secondary teams in major leagues. He was relegation bait with Bolton Wanderers almost every year and was even cast off Aston Villa in favor of Bolton early in his career.
Despite being successful on an individual level and well-respected around Premier League, Cahill was stuck in a rudderless environment. While Cahill was not necessarily old when he moved to Chelsea in 2012, it represented a much-needed boost to his national reputation and seemingly sparked a re-commitment to excellence.
It's that excellence—filled with subtle strengths and aerial wins—that somehow has gone underrated during Cahill's time with Chelsea.
For much of this past season, Cahill has mitigated the injury-riddled season of John Terry. The Blues captain has made just 14 appearances in Premier League action, and though Cahill went through his own injury issues, the underrated defender helped keep Chelsea from cratering.
And that again was the case on Wednesday. Cahill was marvelous throughout the match, playing his position well and injecting his trademarked toughness into the match. He won six aerial contests during the match and effectively cleared the ball out of the offensive zone an equal amount of times.
But, more than anything, it was this play that helped make Cahill arguably Chelsea's most important player:
It was that tackle that helped block an Oscar Cardozo shot, one that almost certainly would have knotted up the contest. It was the type of incredible block you have to see time and again for it to really sink in.
Chelsea youth's Twitter feed sent out a semi-ironic tweet following the brilliant play:
Gaz Cahill, that tackle at the end was a man's tackle.— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) May 15, 2013
The lesson, as always: Gary Cahill is a damn good defender. It's about time we start recognizing his play.
Ezequiel Garay: Also Very, Very Good
When discussing a losing side, it's always easiest to focus on their goal scorer and call it a day. But even though Óscar Cardozo had a fine game and was one of Benfica's only real offensive aggressors, finishing those plays just didn't happen enough. Cardozo's goal came on a penalty
Better defender: Gary Cahill or Ezequiel Garay?
The top individual performance on Wednesday—at least in this humble writer's opinion—came from central defender Ezequiel Garay. Despite Benfica's loss, it often felt like they were in control. Benfica out-shot Chelsea eight goals to five in terms of shots actually on target, and they kept possession for 55 percent of the match.
Much of that was thanks to a strong performance from Garay. The 26-year-old defender was all over the place for Benfica, making plays and halting what seemed like strong Chelsea attacks initially. He made a game-high 11 clearances, six of which were effective, and won five offsides calls—more than double any other player.
It was a testament to Garay’s smarts and timing that his side was so strong defensively. While he did struggle with pacing and seemed a little unfit at times, the answer to that riddle may have been solved when he was taken out for Jardel in the 78th minute.
With rumors swirling of a possible Manchester United transfer this summer, Garay was good enough that he should be a top priority. He’s a very good central defender who would fit instantly into United’s already-strong roster, and Wednesday’s match proved again that he can hang with top competition.
European Championship or Bust for Mourinho Next Season?
Ever since current Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho announced he'd return to Stamford Bridge, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. The 50-year-old manager was the last head man to truly satisfy the Blues' insatiable fanbase.
It’s not hard to see why. Over three years (from June 2004 to September 2007), Mourinho spearheaded an era of dominance for Chelsea. He won 124 games and lost only 21 (with 40 draws), flexing a ridiculous amount of prowess at Stamford Bridge. He’s one of the most popular managers in the club’s history, and his return to the post will only bring back memories of a grand time.
In the nearly six calendar years since Mourinho’s departure, eight men have spent time as Chelsea boss—whether as interim or full-time manager. The group hired has been an increasingly motley crew of instant-agitators to the Chelsea fanbase, with only Carlo Ancelotti sticking around for two years at the helm.
So it’s understandable that Mourinho’s presence sparks joy. But Wednesday’s victory also puts an underestimated amount of pressure on the brilliant skipper’s shoulders.
Despite their obvious flaws, three of the last four Chelsea managers have had some form of major success with the club. Ancelotti won the 2010 FA Cup and 2010 Premier League, Roberto Di Matteo won the 2012 FA Cup and 2012 Champions League and Benitez captured the club’s first Europa League crown.
For all of the anger thrown their way, it’s very hard to fault the success of these men on the pitch. With Mourinho’s storied time at Chelsea already bringing pressure, a supposed £100 million transfer budget coming his way and the recent relative success looming, it’s fair to wonder how this is all going to play out.
History says the Mourinho era will go swimmingly. It has everywhere he’s been. But Wednesday’s Europa League triumph increased a spotlight on the skipper that was already going to be white-hot.