Chelsea won the UEFA Europa League dramatically in Amsterdam today over Portuguese side, Benfica, thanks to a last minute header from Branislav Ivanovic. The central defender’s winning goal came in the final minute of added time off a corner kick which saw the Serb leap heads and shoulders above everyone else in the back post to head the ball into the opposite corner of the goal. Benfica’s keeper, Artur Moraes, had no chance of stopping the ball from sealing Chelsea’s title. It was a magnificent goal to end a thrilling Europa League final between the two clubs. Prior to Ivanovic’s winner, the score was 1-1 due to a Fernando Torres breakaway goal and a penalty kick equalizer from Benfica’s Oscar Cardoza. Chelsea’s triumph today means that the London club completed a back to back trophy haul of European titles; Chelsea won last year’s more prestigious, UEFA Champions League, over Bayern Munich. Benfica on the other hand, failed to win their first European title since 1962.
After the Champions League, the UEFA Europa League is the second tier continental competition amongst Europe’s soccer clubs. The competition features European clubs from all over, 78 at the start to be exact, and features teams from countries that normally do not get the spotlight, like Norway, and those who did not win or finish top in their respective leagues the previous season. For example, in the English Premier League, the 5th place team at the end of the season will qualify for next year’s Europa League tournament. Along with this, eight 3rd placed teams from the Champions League group stage, in the same year, fall into this competition during it’s first knockout round. The later route to the Europa League is how Chelsea and Benfica joined the tournament this year. That is the basic explanation to a rather labyrinthine qualification process for this competition.
Due to typically being void of Europe’s very best teams, players, and lacking the same global fascination in comparison to the Champions League, the Europa League often takes a back seat in the minds of most soccer fans. But every year this tournament offers dramatic finishes, exciting players for the future, and passionate games. This year I watched numerous Europa League games and was seldom disappointed. And today’s final was no exception.
The Amsterdam Arena hosted today’s final and although the fans were energetic the opening minutes from both finalists were not. Chelsea and Benfica were looking to get a feel for the game, there were several, long, wayward passes which did not threat the goal and a few back passes to both sides respective keepers. Chelsea lined up with a balanced 4-2-3-1 formation and were without injured center back John Terry and winger Eden Hazard. The injuries forced manager Rafa Benitez to use Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, and Cole in defense while sending center back, David Luiz, forward in a sort of free roaming center defensive/box to box role. Ramires who typically sits in the middle of the field, played out wide on the right in a more offensive role not typically employed by the Brazilian. For Jorge Jesus and his Benfica side, he chose to use an attacking 4-3-3 formation and after a droll opening 5 minutes, his aggressive formation was working for his team. They created space on the left hand side of the attacking third and in the 11th minute, Benfica had multiple players inside Chelsea’s box but got nervous in front of goal and were unable to challenge Chelsea’s goalkeeper, Petr Cech. Left Back Ashley Cole cleared the ball, but Benfica responded back in the following minute and yet again the Portuguese outfit distributed far too many intricate passes inside Chelsea’s box and without taking a shot. It was a mistake which proved costly.
As the game progressed Chelsea’s wonderful midfielders Juan Mata and Oscar were unable to influence the game and keep Benfica’s midfielders and attackers Perez, Rodrigo, and Matic contained. In the 14th minute Oscar fouled Perez which led to a free kick that Benfica yet again was able to produce a goal out of. After sending the ball in the box, the ball pinged around the area with Benfica unable to get a decent foot on it. Chelsea continued to play second fiddle to their Portuguese opponents, Oscar did take a shot on goal in the 25th minute but it was straight at Benfica’s goalkeeper, Artur’s gloves. After 33 minutes Benfica completed 128 passes to Chelsea’s 66. It wasn’t until the 38th minute when Chelsea had a real attempt at goal. Captain and club legend, Frank Lampard, collected the ball inside 25 yards on the left, took one touch, and struck the ball the ball beautiful with his right. Artur was going in the opposite direction of the ball but was able to recover from his mistake and put a hand on the ball to force it out of bounds and deny Lampard his 204th goal for the British club. Minutes later the halftime whistle rang, the score was still 0-0, and both teams headed into the locker room with much to rectify. Chelsea lacked influence on every level and could only muster two shots on target. And despite edging Chelsea in every category with more shots on goal, distance covered, passes converted, and claiming 56% of ball possession, Benfica were wasteful during the most opportune times.
The second half began with Benfica picking up where they left off but in a much faster tone. They stretched Chelsea early into the half and almost got their goal on the 51st minute when Cardozo connected excellently on a header which beat Cech. But before Benfica could celebrate, the sideline ref’s flag was up, ruling the Paraguayan striker offside and disallowing his goal. Benfica again challenged Chelsea’s box but Cech was able to grab the ball and then in an instant, started Chelsea’s counter attack. The towering goalkeeper sent a ball up the middle to Juan Mata, but the Spaniard was unable to control the ball, however his error fooled Ezequiel Garay and Fernando Torres spun around him and sprinted toward goal. Benfica’s captain Luisao covered across, but Torres had the strength to hold him off and the composure to round the Artur and calmly kick the ball into the back of the net. It was Torres 22nd goal of the season for Chelsea and 6th in the Europa League.
Benfica were not done however and got their equalizer after Chelsea defender, Cesar Azpilicueta’s arm connected with the ball following Salvio’s header inside the box. Oscar stepped up to take the penalty kick and after several baby steps, converted convincingly to bring the match level at 1-1. Benfica were deservedly tied and from then on the gameplay was wide open and the ball was moving swiftly up both ends of the field with each side trying to stake its claim in victory. Benfica almost went ahead after Cardozo hit a wonderful dipping shot in the 81st minute forcing Cech to make an impressive outstretched save to deny the Paraguayan’s shot from sailing into the top corner of the net. Eight minutes later, Frank Lampard nearly made it two goals for Chelsea with a stellar shot from distance that beat the keeper, Artur, easily but struck the top side of the post. The clocked ticked on and the fourth official added three minutes of stoppage time. All signs suggested the match would go into extra time. However in the 93rd minute, the final minute of stoppage time, Chelsea had other ideas.
After winning a corner, the ball looped in and up climbed Branislav Ivanovic, Chelsea’s central defender. The Serbian footballer of the year, jumped mightily from the back post, towering over two Benfica players, to deliver the most important header in his career. After leaving his thunderous forehead, the ball sailed through the air, left Artur flat footed, and cruised into the opposite top corner. It was a fitting goal for a man who missed last year’s Champions League final through suspension. After Ivanovic’s goal the Amsterdam Arena erupted, with Chelsea fans going bezerk and Benfica fans shocked and saddened. There was still just enough time for Cardozo to tie the game with the last kick, but Gary Cahill’s sliding block ensured that Chelsea’s party would not be delayed. Seconds later the final whistle blew and Chelsea won the Europa League.