Another Benfica date with destiny

The Europa League is such a contrived competition that it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm about it, even for the clubs involved.

There may be a whiff of cup romance when an unfancied club such as Fulham or Braga makes it through to the final, but the tournament favours the Champions League dropouts: Chelsea and Benfica this time just like Werder Bremen and Shakhtar Donetsk four years ago.

All the same this is a final with a little more interest than usual.

Chelsea can overcome the disappointment of being the first European champions to exit in the group stage by becoming the first English club to win all three European trophies and, incidentally, the first club ever to hold two European trophies at the same time, if only for 10 days.

For Benfica, the stakes are rather higher. This is their chance to end half a century of disappointment and defeat. Disappointment stretching back over two European Cup finals against Milan and PSV Eindhoven, back to the time of Eusebio, Coluna and Simoes, when the fans clustered round tiny black and white TV sets in Lisbon watched them come back from the dead and put an end to Real Madrid’s dominance of European football.

Benfica’s victory was truly the stuff of legend. Puskas put Real Madrid 2-0 up inside 25 minutes, and after Benfica fought back, scored a third to make it 3-2 at half-time. Then Mario Coluna equalised with a piledriver from 30 yards and Eusebio made himself immortal at the age of 20, scoring twice in the space of four minutes to win the match 5-3.

Amsterdam 1962 truly put Benfica and Portuguese football on the map. Fifty years on you can feel the sense of destiny on their return to the city. The Olympic Stadium, scene of their triumph, is now only used for athletics, but will definitely be on the itinerary of many fans, as well as Eusebio himself.

After the events of the past 10 days they could do with a morale booster.

Neck and neck with Porto for the whole season, and, like their rivals, unbeaten in the league, they just needed to beat Estoril in the Stadio da Luz to stay four points clear and be virtually assured of the title. Instead they could only draw and on Saturday night their decisive match in Porto ended in disaster when the home side scored the winner in the 91st minute.

It was a particularly tough night for Jorge Jesus, Benfica’s extrovert manager, whose touchline gesticulations make Rafael Benitez appear reserved and phlegmatic. He left his main striker, Oscar Cardozo, on the bench and in the Paraguayan’s absence Benfica lacked menace in the area. Even so, Porto appeared to be playing into Benfica’s hands by attacking almost entirely down the middle rather than stretching their defence.. Almost in desperation Porto switched to 4-4-2 bringing on their young Brazilian forward Kelvin to play wide and it was Kelvin who hit the cruel stoppage-time winner with a low cross-shot from the left.

Benfica supporters have become used to these gut-wrenching moments. Porto have established a virtual stranglehold over the league over the past decade, winning eight titles in ten years, and of course have also enjoyed European success on three occasions.

Benfica remain by far the most popular side at home and among the Portuguese abroad. With over 230,000 members they are one of the best-supported clubs in the world, but Porto’s ascendancy gnaws away at them. If they are to fall short in the league again it would be some consolation finally to win another European trophy — especially with their arch-enemy José Mourinho seemingly set to return to Stamford Bridge.

For Rafael Benitez the question will be whether his team have the energy left to last the course. Chelsea have played 23 more matches than Benfica this season and weariness must surely be a factor, even though their morale is on the up. When the two sides met in the Champions League last season it was a close run thing. The decisive moments came from a Fernando Torres run and cross from the right wing — and a slightly fortuitous penalty in the second leg. A similarly close encounter is likely this time.


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