Wednesday 15 May 2013
Chelsea lifted their second major European trophy in as many years on Wednesday night as Branislav Ivanovic struck an added-time winner to seal a 2-1 victory against Benfica in the UEFA Europa League final.
Ivanovic decided a close-fought contest in Chelsea’s last attack when he came up for a corner with only seconds of normal time remaining to deliver the killer blow in a match in which Oscar Cardozo’s penalty had cancelled out Fernando Torres’s opening second-half goal.
"A lot of people said I was appointed to bring the best from Fernando. He has improved a lot so I am really pleased. He was the difference again"
There was little to choose between the two sides in an engaging match which Benfica started brightly, their tendency to overengineer scoring opportunities costing them on more than one occasion in the first half when both Savio and Gaitan opted to pass to worse-placed team-mates rather than shoot themselves.
Chelsea found their feet towards the end of the first period,however, when Frank Lampard came close on 38 minutes with a swerving shot that Artur did well to tip over the crossbar and, a quarter-hour into a much-improved second half, Rafa Benitez’s charges managed to forge their way past the Portuguese side's rearguard.
A long throw-out from goalkeeper Petr Cech somehow eluded the entire midfield and gave Torres the chance to run in on goal. After shrugging off Luisao the Spaniard coolly rounded Artur before slotting the ball into the net.
The lead lasted just eight minutes, however, as Chelsea conceded a penalty when Cesar Azpilicueta handled in the area, affording Cardozo the opportunity to equalise from 12 yards. The game then swung from end to end as both sides created chances, with Cech tipping over a fine shot from the impressive Cardozo and Frank Lampard coming agonisingly close with a rasping 25-yard shot that rattled the crossbar in the 87th minute.
But in the third minute of added time Chelsea won a corner on the right and Ivanovic, who missed last year’s UEFA Champions League final through suspension, appeared at the far post to loop a header back across goal and into the top corner of the net.
Benfica might still have forced extra-time when the Londoners failed to deal with a hopeful ball into the area but Gary Cahill came to the rescue by twice stretching out a leg to deny Cardozo when he seemed certain to score from close range.
Chelsea clung on to become only the fourth club after Bayern Munich, Juventus and Ajax to win all three major UEFA club competitions – the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Champions League and the UEFA Europa League – and the first to win the latter as European club champions.
Benitez, meanwhile, singled out goalscorer Fernando Torres for special praise after the Spanish striker delivered on the big stage. "We have had a lot of players improving during the season," said Benitez. "Fernando [Torres] was one of these players. A lot of people said I was appointed to bring the best from Fernando. He has improved a lot so I am really pleased. He has working hard with the fitness coaches and medical staff and he was the difference again."
"If you analyse everything, we won the Europa League with one striker for every single game"
The triumph was particularly sweet for the 53-year-old, who despite receiving a mixed reception from Chelsea’s supporters since his arrival in November has guided his side to a top-four finish in the Barclays Premier League and a major European trophy.
"If you have to win for people to realise the job we are doing? Well, we won. Hopefully, now people will say it is not bad," he said. "It depends on the perception. But if you analyse everything, we won the Europa League with one striker for every single game.
"We managed players with yellow cards. (Last night) we only had 18 players. If you put everything together you will realise how hard it is. I think we did well."
Benitez also lauded the contribution of Frank Lampard, who came so close to providing the late winner himself. "Frank is a great professional," the Spaniard said. "He has worked hard in every training session and now, at the end, I think we could see he has improved.
"Some people were surprised when I said that but he has scored a lot of goals in this period. Maybe it was because we were managing him quite well. When you play two games a week, with his age and commitment, sometimes you are not fresh. You can see he still has a lot of football. He is fit and next year he will do well again."