Chelsea will be looking to keep their hopes alive of their marathon season ending with a trophy as Rafael Benitez’s men host Basel in their Europa League semi-final second-leg clash at Stamford Bridge today.
The English Premier League outfit lead 2-1 from last week’s semi-final, first leg in Switzerland and need only avoid defeat in west London to be assured of a place in the May 15 final in Amsterdam.
However, the games are coming thick and fast for the Blues, who must be running on fumes having already played an incredible 63 times this season.
No other team has played in as many competitions as Chelsea, with one-off matches such as the English Community Shield and European Super Cup added to the the World Club Championship, Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup, as well as their Premier League bread and butter, making up an epic campaign.
If they get past Basel, they will finish the season on 69 matches.
Benitez has done his best to keep things fresh by rotating certain players, yet six of his squad have made at least 55 appearances, and that is not including internationals.
While outside observers may have been baffled by Benitez’s rotation policy, which has included such club stalwarts as Frank Lampard and John Terry, no one could deny that Chelsea’s players have had a most demanding schedule.
In the past month they played 10 times, an average of a game every three days.
While they remain favorites to defeat the Swiss side, who have already progressed further in European competition than ever before, Chelsea must surely be feeling the effects of their grueling program.
They have made no secret of the fact that the Europa League is secondary to their prime objective of finishing in the Premier League’s top four and qualifying for the Champions League next season.
In the six days following the visit of Basel, Chelsea must travel to Manchester United and then host Tottenham Hotspur in two crucial league fixtures that could determine their Champions League qualification. It means they could be forgiven for keeping more than just one eye on those fixtures when Basel are in town.
On Sunday they looked comfortable in beating Swansea 2-0 at home, although Lampard was quick to point out that result was just a means to an end.
“What’s more important is for the club to qualify for next season’s Champions League and we’ve also got a Europa League final to try to get to and win,” he told the club’s Web site. “If we can keep our rhythm with the way we’re playing and stay positive, the big games that are coming we need to try and win. If we don’t it will go to the wire, but I believe we’ve got the strong-minded players to go and do it.”
While Chelsea may be feeling the pressure, Basel are merely enjoying the ride, goalkeeper Yann Sommer said.
“Next to trying to win the domestic league title again, the Europa League is like a dessert for us, which we just wanted to enjoy all the way through,” he told uefa.com.
Regardless of who gets to the final, there is sure to be a new name on the Europa League trophy as it would also be a first for the two sides in the other semi-final, Fenerbahce and SL Benfica.