FOX Soccer Exclusive
Blues face Eagles in powerhouse clash
Shopkeepers Benfica meet big-spending Chelsea in a tantalizing Europa League final (live, FOX Soccer, 3 p.m. ET). It is compelling matchup that unexpectedly features the reigning European champions. How Chelsea slipped to this level is an agonizing matter for the club; how their Portuguese opponents reached it is just the opposite -- a matter of great pride.
The differences between the two clubs are stark. Chelsea have been frequent patrons of Benfica’s shop window, inflating the Portuguese side’s coffers with two big money transfers for Ramires and David Luiz.
Benfica’s business model – grooming young players to then sell on – is a matter of necessity for the cash-strapped side in one of Europe’s weaker leagues. But the Lisbon Eagles are successful, even though every single one of their players comes affixed with a price tag. That means that fans will see Benfica field several players that could well be in London next season. Argentine Nicolas Gaitan is a top transfer target for a number of European powerhouses and is expected to move; Brazilian striker Lima, a bargain at just $5m, is expected to fetch multiples of that in the summer as well.
Yet while the Blues are heavy favorites to win out here at the Amsterdam ArenA, there should be no underestimating the Portuguese giants. They are an effective and potent possession team that earned the right to be here. Benfica only dropped European games this season to Barcelona and Spartak (in the Champions League, where they finished third in their group) and then to Fenerbahce away in a semifinal game that was extraordinarily tight.
The Blues also may come to regret one of the men they sent to Benfica in one of their dealings. Nemanja Matic, a makeweight in the Luiz transfer, has unexpectedly become a critical part of manager Jorge Jesus’ midfield axis. Matic, who has admitted he did not feel like he got a fair chance at Stamford Bridge, is now considered to be worth five times his valuation and may be the next man to move on. But in this game, he will be playing with a chip on his shoulder, eager to show his former bosses what they conceded.
Chelsea have conceded a lot this season. They meandered their way to Holland, crashing out of the Champions League group stage, sacking the manager who won them the European Cup, and then slowly building to a third-place finish in England. Amsterdam on a Wednesday night is not where they wanted to be at all. A win here would give Chelsea their first UEFA Cup – but it would be an achievement that would have far smaller resonance than the events of last May.
The European Cup was Chelsea’s goal; if we’re honest, this final is something of a makeup for a disappointing year both at home and abroad. Should Chelsea win it, the team will celebrate it, but don’t be shocked if those festivities are muted. Unlike Benfica, Chelsea aims to the kings of Europe every season. And yet, this is their second European final in an as many years– and their second under a so-called “interim” manager. Wags have already pointed out that that tag is perhaps critical to Chelsea’s continental success.
In contrast, Amsterdam is something of a happy homecoming ground for the Eagles, as fans with long memories will recall this as the city in which Eusebio led Benfica to a 1962 Europan Cup triumph over Real Madrid. Benfica have been far less successful in Europe since: this is their first European final since 1990’s bitter loss in Vienna to AC Milan. In the interim, their arch-rivals, Porto, have risen to dominate Portuguese soccer. Make no mistake: this is as massive a game as it gets for the club, and it seen by the Benfiquistas as their best chance to stake their claim once again.
The Blues are expected to be missing both John Terry (ankle) and Eden Hazard (hamstring) for the game after both men were removed injured on the weekend against Aston Villa. Terry’s absence is unlikely to have much effect as he had dropped to being a fourth-choice center-back and was not even going to make the game-day 18.
But Hazard’s injury opens the door for Frank Lampard’s return. Lampard has struggled to get off the bench this season, but Saturday he became the club’s leading all-time goalscorer, surpassing Bobby Tambling’s mark of 202 goals to smash a mark that had stood since 1969. Rafa Benitez made no promises about Lampard after he scored the winner against Villa this weekend, but it would be a shock if he didn’t figure in this match.
The game is a sell-out and is expected to be wide-open. Both teams are potent on the counter and both boast class on the ball and fine movement off it. And in a one-off cup final, there really is no such thing as a favorite these days. (Just ask Wigan.) Fans should miss it at their peril, for it is quite likely to the kind of engaging game we all hope for in a final. Even if it is merely on a Wednesday night.
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