As last acts go, Chelsea's Europa League final win over Benfica was pretty dramatic.
Redemption for Fernando Torres after his general woes at the club, redemption for Branislav Ivanovic after he missed the Champions League final win in Munich, and a last-gasp vindication for the departing Rafael Benitez, who has once again showed himself to be a master of the cup final and gone some way to erasing that iffy spell at Inter Milan.
It wasn’t quite a smash-and-grab affair, but Benfica defied the form and statistics to dominate the ball as Chelsea struggled to get a foothold in midfield for large parts of the game. "We deserved to win, we were better and more consistent as a team than Chelsea," Jorge Jesus said after suffering title-losing, last-gasp goals twice in a week.
Despite Jesus's assertion that his side were "tactically superior", Benfica did pay a price for their own change of shape on the night, foregoing the direct approach of the benched Ola John, which in turn did not give Oscar Cardozo nearly enough aerial joy; they also descended into Arsenal-esque overplaying, steadfastly refusing to shoot from countless good positions.
Since David Luiz was deployed as a defensive midfielder, Chelsea had morphed into a possession-based attacking side, hence the reduced reliance on John Terry, who is unable to hold the high line required for such a gameplan.
It is with some irony therefore that Terry – ruled out through injury – could not play, as he would have been more suited to what was, at times, backs-against-the-wall defending from Chelsea.
It is also with some irony that during the match Benitez, one of the finest in-play tacticians in the modern game, appeared to accept that Chelsea were not going to gain control of possession – they only managed 38% in the first half – switching to a counter-attacking ploy that ultimately won them the match.
Ironic because both goals came from classic ‘Mourinho’ moves: a route one throw from Petr Cech to Torres – who put in a Didier Drogba-esque performance on the night – and a set-piece won by a surging Ramires counter down the right.
It could all have been so different. Unfortunately Cesar Azpilicueta is not quite good enough for this level, while match-winner Ivanovic did not have one of his better games until that late intervention. And but for some wasteful, over-elaborative play in the final third, Benfica could have been out of sight.
Obviously the match was not as one-sided as the Champions League final in Munich last year, and the result therefore not so much a travesty.
But Benitez's flexibility and ability to think under pressure will be difficult to replicate; his man-management skills have been questioned in the past, but he has been unfussy with his players at Chelsea, and has managed to rotate and placate with a degree of humility and style.
To the non-partisan observer and the minority of Chelsea fans who respect Benitez’s accomplishments and abilities, the Spaniard’s departure from Stamford Bridge will be a big loss.
If indeed Mourinho returns to his spiritual home, how will he set-up a team now reliant on the kind of creative playmakers he drilled into functionality in his previous tenure?
How will Mourinho soften the blow of top players – such as Juan Mata and Torres – being rotated for certain matches, and how will he manage the decline of Terry? How will he deal with Torres, who obviously needs to be coddled into form and may struggle with his more abrasive management style, a style that sits better with the alpha-males in the squad (provided they’re not on his wrong side)?
These are all questions entirely dependent on Mourinho actually replacing Benitez at Stamford Bridge. He may not, though it seems certain unless one of Europe’s big-spenders makes a surprise move for the Portuguese.
But for now let’s celebrate the tactical genius that is Benitez who, for all his faults, has won three major European titles, plus a Super Cup and World Club Cup.
Not bad for a man supposedly more suited to catering than football management.
- Sports & Recreation
- Rafael Benitez
- Fernando Torres
- Branislav Ivanovic