KEIR RADNEDGE reports from AMSTERDAM
— Success and failure come in strange guises in sport. Chelsea knew that better than most as they took the lead, lost it then regained it tobeat Benfica 2-1 with a goal in stoppage time in the Europa League Final in the ArenA here.
All the goals came in the second half. Fernando Torres and, most dramatically, Branislav Ivanovic scored for Chelsea with Oscar Cardozo responding with a penalty inbetween. Benfica stood in baffled confusion at the final whistle, wondering they could have lost a final they dominated from start to finish.
Bayern Munich know how they felt.
Hence Rafa Benitez ended up with his fourth personal European trophy and Chelsea matched Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Ajax as the onlu clubs to have won all three European trophies (including the defunct Cup-winners Cup).
Victory for Chelsea was all the more remarkable considering much of the negativity surrounding them this past season.
Yet they have ended up boasting the unique status of the only club ever to claim the double, as simultaneous holders of both European trophies.
This trick was accomplished courtesy of the UEFA schedule which slots the Europa League final 10 days ahead of the European season’s Champions League climax.
Not that such an achievement – Chelsea’s fourth European trophy – had appeared likely after Benfica repeatedly tiptoed prettily and with surprising ease into the Blues’ penalty box in the opening minutes.
Oscar Cardozo popped a header over the bar, Eduardo Salvio had a shot blocked, Nicolas Gaitan ballooned over and there was a comedy of errors when Chelsea struggled to clear and a succession of Benfica players queued up and all missed their kicks.
Inbetween ex-Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic was lucky to escape a yellow card for pulling down Ramires but Oscar was not so fortunate when he clipped Enzo Perez. The difference was that Ramires had been still in his own half while Perez was running in towards the Chelsea penalty box.
This was more like the Chelsea thrashed 4-1 by Atletico de Madrid in Monaco last August in the Supercup than the resilient outfit nailed together by the unloved Benitez since his takeover and the Spaniard was not long in popping out into the technical area to try to adjust the misfiring pistons.
It had been expected that Chelsea would take a pragmatic option to crowd out Benfica in midfield but the Portuguese coach Jorge Jesus had seen that coming and put his faith in a strategy of keeping the ball wide and keeping Chelsea stretched.
Ivanovic was fortunate not to collect a second Chelsea booking for clouting the dangerous Perez then Gaitan toe-poked an angled shot over the bar after another left-wing raid.
Chelsea, missing Eden Hazard, were given the odd glimmer of hope by the nervy punching of Artur in the Benfica goal. He had been in this final before, as a loser with Braga against Porto in 2011. Perhaps superstitious fear of a repeat was to blame for his jumpy behaviour.
Even when he deflected a thumping drive from Chelsea skipper Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s only threatening moment, it was almost by accident with his ‘wrong’ left hand. Benfica fans call him ‘King Artur’ but he was keeping goal more like Queen Guinevere.
That apart, Chelsea were fortunate to reach the interval undamaged.
The second half started with no change, apart from the switch of ends. If anything, Benfica upped the pace. Cesar Azpiculeta whipped the ball off Rodrigo’s toes when it appeared he must have scored then Cardozo was unlucky to have a headed ‘goal’ disallowed for offside.
Chelsea now appeared to have accepted that their role in this match was to mass in defence, hope that the line held and look to launch swift counters rather than construct meaningful attacks.
In the 59th minute that strategy was repaid consummately when Petr Cech hurled the ball downfield, through the heart of midfield and Torres turned Luisao, ran clear, stepped wide of Artur and slotted home his 22nd goal of the season.
Benfica, remarkably after their first-half profligacy, struck back within minutes. Azpilacueta flapped a hand at a high-bouncing ball in the penalty box and Cardozo thundered his kick through the centre of goal.
The Paraguayan might have had another in the 81st minute. Sloppy defending by Chelsea offered him a snap-shot chance and Cech brilliantly flipped the ball over the bar. At the other end Lampard worked a modicum of space for a shot but though Artur was beaten the ball twanged back off the crossbar.
But destiny was calling. In stoppage time the tireless Mata curled over a right-wing penalty and Ivanovic was just about the only played to rise at the far corner of the goal area to head down and in.
Last year Ivanovic had missed the Champions League Final against Bayern through suspension. This was his magnificent consolation.
Benfica: Artur – Andre Almeida, Luisao, Garay (Jardel 76), Melgarejo (John 65) – Matic – Salvio, Perez, Rodrigo (Lima 65), Gaitan – Salvio, Oscar Cardozo. Coach: Jorge Jesus.
Subs: Paulo Lopes, Aimar, Urreta, Andre Gomes.
Chelsea: Cech – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole – David Luiz, Lampard – Ramires, Mata, Oscar – Torres. Manager: Benitez.
Subs: Turnbull, Mikel, Moses, Paulo Ferreira, Marin, Benayoun, Ake.
Referee: Bjorn Kuipers (Hol). Attendance: 46,163.