Amsterdam – When Chelsea and Benfica embarked on their European cup campaign in September, they were dreaming of Champions League glory. On Wednesday one of them will end their campaign with Europa League success.
Both teams finished no better than third in their Champions League groups and as a result were relegated to the Europa League – considered by many to be an inferior competition.
Nevertheless, Chelsea go into Wednesday's final in the AmsterdamArena on a high after having on Saturday all but guaranteed direct entry into next season's Champions League with a 2-1 victory at Aston Villa, while Benfica lost their first league match of the season and saw Porto overtake them at the top of the Campeonato Nacional with just one game to go.
The two teams met last year in the Champions League quarter-final and Chelsea won both matches en route to their first-ever Champions League success.
The Premier League side are again the favourites to win the trophy – a victory that would see them become just the fourth team in the history of European cup competition to win all three club competitions (the others being Juventus, Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich).
Rafael Benitez, in his penultimate game in charge of the Blues, could be without former England skipper John Terry and Belgian international Eden Hazard, who picked up injuries in the win against Aston Villa.
“To lose players like Terry, Hazard could be difficult but hopefully not because we have quality in the squad,” said Benitez, who could become only the second coach to win the Europe League with two different clubs – the other being Giovanni Trapattoni.
The Spaniard, who will see his future employment prospects greatly enhanced with a win on Wednesday, is confident Chelsea are well prepared for the match.
“I know Benfica, I know the manager, I know the players, it's a very good team,” he said.
Two of the Chelsea players, David Luiz and Ramires, are former Benfica players. “I have been talking to them, about what they normally do. They are a very good team. It will be a tough, tough game.”
Given the importance of the match against Villa, Benitez did not have the luxury of being able to rest key players, but will likely start with Fernando Torres up front for the cup-tied Demba Ba. The Spanish international is the team's top scorer in the Europe League with five goals.
Benfica coach Jorge Jesus believes that his side deserve to be in the final.
“We have good expectations ahead of the Chelsea match and we have a lot of confidence.” jhe said.
“We go into this final, as we always do with a lot of respect for our opponents. But we are very confident that we can win it that is for sure.”
One of the stalwarts in his side is former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic, who said his past made no difference.
“I have no special feeling because this is game is like any game in the Portuguese league. Of course, it is a final, we are playing against a good team. But me and the whole team will give our best to win.”
Benfica's captain Luisao, who created one of the goals as Benfica overturned a 1-0 defeat from the semi-final first leg against Fenerbahce with a 3-1 victory, is looking forward to facing former team-mates Luiz and Ramires.
“We are happy because they are great players,” he said.
“David Luiz is having a brilliant career, and I am a fan of Ramires as he is a player I am a fan of on and off the field because of the person he is. So we are happy to play against them, but they left quite a while ago and we moved on to new things. Now we are just waiting to play the final.
The Portuguese clubs' star midfielder Pablo Aimar has thrown down the gauntlet ahead of the game by saying that the present Chelsea team was the worst since Roman Abramovich bought the club.
“Of course, Chelsea are a big club, but this is not the same team that won the Champions League a year ago. They have not been convincing in Europe or in the Premier League.
“And it is a team that is not behind the coach. We can take advantage of the fact they are not at their best and not playing as a team. It is amazing how much a team can change in 12 months, but that is football.”
Chelsea players will be keen to make Aimar eat his words and on Wednesday they hope to do just that. – Sapa-dpa