Branislav Ivanovic’s injury time goal saw Chelsea claim the Europa League title at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Rafa Benitez made four changes to the side that defeated Aston Villa on the weekend. Fernando Torres led the line in a 4-2-3-1, while Juan Mata, Oscar and Ramires played behind the Spanish striker. Frank Lampard and David Luiz protected the back four, and Gary Cahill started at centre back. Demba Ba was unavailable as he’s cup-tied, while Eden Hazard and John Terry were sidelined due to injury.
Jorge Jesus made three changes to his starting line up, after suffering a heartbreaking defeat to FC Porto. Oscar Cardozo led the line, with Nicolás Gaitán, Rodrigo and Eduardo Salvio playing behind the Paraguayan striker. Nemanja Matić and Enzo Perez formed a midfield two, and Lorenzo Melgarejo played at left back. This pushed Ola John and Rodrigo Lima to the bench, while Andre Almeida started at right back for the suspended Maxi Pereira.
Benfica will rue several missed opportunities, as Chelsea exploited their weaknesses and were clinical in front of goal in the second half.
There’s no question that Benfica was the better side in the opening half, and the way Jesus’ men pressed was pivotal to their dominance. Luiz and Lampard struggled to stamp their authority on the match, as they rarely had possession of the ball. Benfica pressed higher up the pitch when Cech had the ball, preventing Chelsea from building out of the back. Lampard and Luiz took turns dropping deep to receive the ball, but Rodrigo got tight to the Chelsea midfielders. Cech was forced to punt long balls towards Torres, but Ezequiel Garay, Luisão and Matić comfortably won aerial duels.
Chelsea on the other hand, like most Benitez sides, opted to keep their shape, predominantly in two banks of four. They allowed Garay and Luisão to play from the back, and in the opening 20 minutes Mata didn’t apply any pressure on Matić, who was playing deep – once Mata got closer to Matić, Benfica found it harder to get forward.
Ultimately, Benfica’s pressure prevented Chelsea from controlling possession, and the tempo of the match, while Chelsea’s lack of pressure led to Benfica’s dominant first half display.
Benfica’s pressing was significant in preventing Chelsea from playing, but their approach towards the match was vital as well. Luiz was busy shadowing Rodrigo, Lampard was marking Perez, and Matić was the spare man. When Mata failed to pick Matić up, it gave Benfica a numerical advantage in midfield – Lampard and Luiz were often yards away from each other, and neither man knew whom to pick up. Rodrigo dropped deep into the midfield to pick up the ball and provided an extra passing option, while Salvio and Gaitán drifted centrally from wide positions.
Chelsea kept their shape as the half continued – it was more of a narrow 4-4-2, because Jesus’ wingers drifted centrally, forcing the Chelsea fullbacks to follow them. This allowed Melgarejo and Almeida to get into advanced positions, as Benfica was keen on getting numbers forward. Melgarejo, known for what he can do offensively opposed to defensively, caused Cesar Azpilicueta numerous problems, as the Spanish fullback couldn’t determine which Benfica left-sided player to mark. Ramires was Chelsea’s main outlet going forward, but he had a poor first half, as Melgarejo was found in advanced positions unmarked. Ramires’ lackadaisical positioning, along with failing to track back effectively, was why Benfica had joy on the left flank.
Benfica got into dangerous positions, producing neat combination plays, and constructing intricate passes around the 18-yard box, but their quality in front of goal was poor. Mainly in the opening 25 minutes, Benfica squandered several chances, which is why the score line didn’t reflect their dominance in the first half.
Chelsea’s approach played into Benfica’s hands, but they overpassed the ball on several occasions and their finishing was lacklustre in the first half.
Chelsea grew into the match in the second half, which isn’t much of a surprise seeing as its been the narrative of Benitez’ tenure this season – they are slow starters. Chelsea, sat relatively deep in the first half, and were urged to push higher up the pitch. Although Lampard and Luiz were still unable to grab a hold of the match, Chelsea succeeded in other areas. Melgarejo and Almeida rarely got into advanced positions and Juan Mata was able to receive the ball in between the lines.
Mata was forced to drop deeper in the first half to get on the ball, as there was no link between Chelsea’s isolated midfield and their front four. Mata nearly gave Chelsea the lead in the first half, playing a lovely ball that Oscar failed to control. Chelsea is able to create chances when Mata’s on the ball, and as the game wore on and Benfica tired, the Spaniard was able to do so.
“The game plan was for Oscar, Ramires & Torres to run behind defenders and Mata between the lines to find them,” – Rafa Benitez
Benitez’ game plan was evident from the start of the match, but Benfica’s pressing prohibited the Blues from implementing it until the second half.
Fernando Torres hasn’t reached the levels many expected him too, after making his £50m move from Anfield. Frankly, he’s been the scapegoat of the English media, as he’ll forever be linked to that transfer fee. One thing about Torres during his time in a Chelsea uniform is that he’s played a significant role in massive goals, throughout Chelsea’s European success over the past two seasons.
After his opening goal, Torres began to receive the ball between the lines, laying it off to his midfield – he ran at defenders with the ball, and was succeeding in his battle with Luisão. Torres showed signs of pace, brute strength and finish. It was another decent outing from the Spaniard, who’s improved under Benitez – he may never reach the high’s of the past due to previous injuries, but on his day Torres is still a quality striker.
Minutes after Torres’ opener, Jesus made two changes introducing Rodrigo Lima and Ola John, which pushed Gaitán to left back. Benfica leveled the game immediately from a Cardozo penalty, but the main concern was whether Jesus would introduce a defender to replace Gaitán.
Jesus’ problems got worse, as Garay pulled up, which forced the Portuguese manager to make his final change. Jardel replaced the Argentinian, leaving Benfica with only one regular starter in their backline – and he was getting battered by Torres.
Benitez didn’t have many attacking options on the bench, so there was no surprise that he didn’t make a change. If Ramires continued to play poorly, Victor Moses would’ve been a possible candidate to feature, as his direct wing play could have troubled Gaitán.
Jesus’ changes gave Benfica attacking impetus, but with Mata and Torres harming them in between the lines, and Ramires receiving space to attack, Jesus’ men were left vulnerable at the back.
Chelsea attack down the right
With Gaitán playing as a make-shift left back for the final 25 minutes, Chelsea intended on attacking down the right. Gaitán found himself pushing too far up the pitch, trying to create overloads with John, but he left space behind him for Ramires to exploit.
Ramires is an energetic runner, and Chelsea was aiming to find him prior to the change. Now the Brazilian had space to run into, and whenever Chelsea broke, the ball was played to that flank. To no surprise, it was Ramires who won the corner on the right flank that led to Ivanovic’s goal, and despite the Brazilian not having his best match of his Chelsea career, he came to life when Chelsea isolated Gaitán.
Jesus’ inability to implement a plan B, along with Rafa exploiting Benfica’s weaknesses decided the game, opposed to a major tactical theme.
Benfica has possibly conceded two trophies, in the matter of four days, courtesy of two dramatic injury time winners. Jesus has once again failed to win a massive game – his attacking changes had an impact on the match, but his side lacked balance, and was exposed down the right flank. Benfica’s woes in European final’s continues, and although the loss will be tough to swallow, the timing of the Ivanovic’s winner will be unforgettable.
Chelsea win the Europa League a year after claiming the Champions League, making them the first team to be holders of both titles. Like they did in Munich, Chelsea defended exceptionally well, and converted the minimal chances they created.
“The second goal we had practiced, as we know they have a weak point on corners,” Benitez said.
“The technical staff worked on this but David Luiz also said they had problems there, so we tried to take advantage from all of this,” he said.
Benitez’ plan was successful, despite having to react to Benfica’s tactics – it’s a shame that he’ll be relieved of his duties, despite stabilizing the club.