Europa League Final preview: Benitez aims to go out with a bang

Rafa Benitez could end his spell at Chelsea with a European trophy. Photo: PA

John Obi Mikel may have dismissed the Europa League as the ugly duckling of continental football, but there is no doubt about the importance of the competition to Chelsea's interim manager Rafael Benitez.

If you had told any Chelsea fan at the start of the season that they would be competing in yet another European final come May, their eyes would have lit up with excitement.

A chance to become the first team to retain the Champions League in its modern format? Another shot at glory for former midfield maestro Roberto Di Matteo? An opportunity for John Terry to finally captain the side to European Cup victory?

All those scenarios would have played out in the fans' minds upon hearing such a prophecy, but there will be no Champions League fairytale for the west London club this year.

The defence of the trophy could not have gone worse, in fact. Defeats against Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus meant Chelsea became the first team to follow up Champions League glory by exiting the competition in the group stage.

Despite the mega-money arrivals of Oscar and Eden Hazard, Di Matteo failed to recreate the spirit and cohesion that had helped them pull off that shock win in Munich.

The embarrassment of his team's exit was enough for Roman Abramovich, who pushed the red button and off went Di Matteo.

After an iffy start, which coincided with howls of derision from the Chelsea supporters who were outraged by his appointment, Benitez soon began to make a difference.

The Blues' defence tightened up, they started to show promise going forward again. Fernando Torres even started scoring.

In the Premier League they are on course to finish in the top three, while they have also reached the Europa League final - even if that was not their aim at the start of the campaign.

As Mikel pointed out, the competition hardly sets the pulse racing among the Chelsea players and fans.

"What do they say? Thursday nights, Channel 5?" he asked after playing in a game which saw a paltry 46 Rubin Kazan fans turn up at Stamford Bridge.

"Next season we hope to be prime time."

Yes, dropping in to the Europa League has extended Chelsea's season by nine matches, and yes there are no fancy lights or songs, but the Europa League has helped the Blues this season.

Firstly it has given Benitez a chance to rotate his squad, meaning the likes of Victor Moses, Ryan Bertrand, Nathan Ake and Marko Marin have played full games, rather than sitting frustrated on the bench.

And it has given Benitez an opportunity chance to make Terry feel involved in the squad after he clearly came to the conclusion that at 32 the defender cannot stand up to the rigours of the Premier League.

Torres' confidence has mushroomed after he bagged five goals in the competition, and aside from their late winner against Sparta Prague, Chelsea have played well in their games in the competition against Rubin, Steaua Bucharest and Basle, who gained the prize scalp of Tottenham in the quarter-finals.

What do they say? Thursday nights, Channel 5? Next season we hope to be prime time.

– John Obi Mikel isn't keen on the Europa League

Benitez won the competition with Valencia in 2004 and ever since he took charge of Chelsea, the Spaniard has made no secret of his desire to win it.

"We have one more opportunity to win a big title," he said. "It'll be tough because Benfica are a very, very dangerous team and hard to play against, but at least we are there.

"With the commitment and the quality, we'll have a chance for sure."

As ever, Benitez has clearly done his homework on Benfica. The Portuguese side will be hard to break down next Wednesday.

Benfica have scored 73 times and conceded just 17 goals in an unbeaten 28-match run which has seen them rise to the top of the Portuguese league with just two matches of the season to go.

Should they beat second-placed Porto this Saturday, they will arrive in Amsterdam with their 33rd league title already secured.

After dropping in to the competition from the Champions League, Benfica overcame Bayer Leverkusen, Bordeaux and Newcastle before mounting a dramatic comeback to defeat Fenerbahce in the semi-finals.

Although they had Barcelona as one of their rivals, Benfica coach Jorge Jesus was disappointed that his team did not make it through the Champions League group stages, finishing third behind the Catalan giants and Celtic.

Having won the European Cup twice in the 1960s, the club has undoubted pedigree and their current squad contains a host of supremely talented South Americans like Eduardo Salvio, Oscar Cardozo and Nicolas Gaitan.

Possibly the most determined man to feature for the Portuguese team will be Nemanja Matic, who has impressed since signing for Benfica following an unhappy two-year spell at Stamford Bridge.

Although some, like Mikel, played down the competition's importance, the stage is set for what should be an excellent match in Amsterdam next week.