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Europa League Final: Chelsea vs. Benfica

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Often times you have to wonder if butter would even melt in Chelsea fan’s mouths.

In the last five seasons the Blues have won: three FA Cups, a Premier League title and the Champions League. Yet the London club’s fans still find a way to complain, namely that Roman Abramovich fired Roberto Di Matteo to replace him on an interim basis with ex-Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez. All the portly Spainard has done since being hired on an interim basis in November is secure a return to the Champions League and guide the Blues to the final of the Europa League, where it will take on Portuguese giants SL Benfica today (2:45, Fox Soccer) in Amsterdam. Granted its the second-tier European competition, but it’s still a final and a chance to win a trophy.

That won’t be enough for the impossible to please fans that turn up at Stamford Bridge.

In a matter of days the ax will fall on Benitez and he’ll likely be replaced by Jose Mourinho, if the always trustworthy European rumor mongers are to be believed.

Be careful what you wish for Chelsea fans. In the last couple weeks Chelsea, using the attacking trio of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard (out for Wednesday’s final), backed up by David Luiz as a defensive midfielder paired with fellow Brazilian Ramires have looked like the best team in England. The manner in which Chelsea have been able to both pummel over-matched foes, or grind out a result like it did Sunday vs. Aston Villa through a late goal by Frank Lampard (his record 203rd at the club)  is impressive.

At their peak, Chelsea have arguably played the best soccer of anyone in England this season. If the Blues November wasn’t so awful, when they took only four of a possible 15 points in Premier League matches, they should have mounted a serious challenge to push Manchester United for the title. Instead Chelsea marched through close to 70 competitive matches this year, somehow appearing to get better the longer the season progressed, but after losing out in the Prem, the League Cup, the FA Cup, the Club World Cup and Champions League, today’s Europa League final is the Blues last and only chance for silverware.

The way Chelsea is currently constructed even if the club wins the Europa League today which means the Blues will lift European trophies in back-to-back seasons, the year will probably feel like major disappointment inside Stamford Bridge and the club will likely go on major spending spree this summer again.

And you wonder why we hate them?

As for Benfica (yes there’s an opponent in this match), the Portuguese club enters Wendesday’s final at the Amsterdam ArenA reeling. Reeling is a relative term since Benfica will still finish second this year in the Portuguese Primera and qualify for the Champions League.

The emotional state of the club will be in question after Sunday’s brutal loss to rival Porto on a goal in stoppage-time. The win by Porto pushed them atop the table by a point over Benfica with one game remaining. Benfica’s loss to Porto on Sunday was also the first loss by either of the clubs in league play all season.

It probably means Benfica fans, unlike many Chelsea fans, won’t turn their noses up at a win in the Europa League.

Benfica are also an interesting case as its starting XI for the final likely won’t feature any Portuguese players. A couple guys to keep an eye on are former Chelsea prospect Nemanja Matić, who moved to Benfica as part of the David Luiz transfer, in the center of midfield along with Argentine wingers Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Gaitan. Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardoza should be familar to fans of English clubs as he’s scored against them in many European competitions.

The final is a double-edged sword for a club like Benfica. Although it might be one of two dominant giants in Portugal, should any of its players impress Wednesday they’ll likely have to be sold in the summer to try to help offset the club’s debt which is in the hundreds of millions of euros range.

In any event, Chelsea fans ought to try to forget the Europa League is a second-tier event and enjoy it. You know John Terry will — in full uniform no less — afterward should Chelsea win, whether he plays in the match or not.

[Photo by Getty]

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