Other than both sets of supporters acting out in increasingly more dramatic shows of victory and defeat after the final whistle, the night’s best performances probably belong to Juan Mata and the progressively more “rugged” Fernando Torres. With Mata finally able to create from more entry passes received in the second half and Torres able to use physical play to prolong possession in the final third (and ultimately score), Torres and the Mata-dor managed to do just enough offensively to unlock Benfica’s defense.
Torres’ matchup with Luisao in particular, at the heart of Benfica’s backline, has to be encouraging for those hoping Fernando has made the needed adjustments to his “life in the slow lane” forward’s existence. Since he came to Chelsea, and more importantly since he sustained those career redefining injuries with Liverpool, we have only seen his more brutish target man persona come out in spurts, almost like he’s expecting that glide past defenders speed to return at any moment. Tonight, however, Fernando didn’t make that mistake.
When Juan Mata played Torres that flick-on in the 61st minute of the Europa final, El Nino had to make one of those instant fight or finesse decisions. Last year, when the pressure to score was so intense and his pricey contract was the only thing making headlines, I would have gone straight to Unibet to put money on Fernando turning this very kind of chance into a foot race, hastily reverting back to his old, shifty ways. Instead, the Spaniard used his frame and leverage to initially usher away centerback Ezequiel Garay to maintain control, then fend off defender Luisao immediately after to progress directly on goal. After imperiously sending those rangy defenders to boxed-out oblivion, it was easy for Torres to turn the lasting momentum of Mata’s quick through-ball into a favorable one-on-one with the opposing keeper.
From there, it was vintage Torres. A quick touch past the goalie and a calm finish above a sliding defender’s last-ditch attempt to block his shot. Nice to see a player that once made things look so easy, now at least make things look so simple. An extremely well-taken (and obviously really important) goal, especially for a Chelsea team that was really struggling to maintain possession in the offensive third for the first 45 minutes of this match.
To get an idea of just how badly the Blues were struggling to get a foothold in the center of the field, all you really have to do is look at the genesis of the Fernando Torres goal. It took a Petr Cech throw for a ball to finally reach Juan Mata in a dangerous area where he could initiate play for Torres… and when Mata did get that ball from Cech, he only had time to send a quick one-touch flick because Benfica’s tenacious lane closing was so persistent.
Frank Lampard, David Luiz and Ramires were rarely able to get the ball and turn up field with time for penetrative passing and perceptive playmaking, which forced the majority of Chelsea’s early chances to materialize from Ramires and Azpilicueta runs and counters down the right-side flank. Chelsea has way too much quality in the middle of the field to settle for such predictable lines of attack, and for Benfica to get their opponent to fall into that strategy for such a long stretch of the game… well, it gave them a great opportunity to win this final. Just one last-second Ivanovic header away from going to extra time.
For Chelsea, it’s another year, yet another trophy… but like most Blues campaigns in recent memory, it only leaves us wanting Mou.