After a turbulent season, history beckons for Chelsea in today’s Europa League final in Amsterdam, where they will meet an SL Benfica team reeling from a devastating domestic defeat by archrivals Porto.
The premature end to Chelsea’s Champions League defense had threatened to leave a cloud over their entire campaign.
Roberto di Matteo’s dismissal as manager created a negative atmosphere that only got worse when the unpopular Rafael Benitez was appointed as his interim successor, but now, salvation is in sight.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa essentially secured the club’s place in next season’s Champions League, and victory over Benfica would turn an unhappy campaign into one etched in Chelsea folklore.
The all-German Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on May 25 means Chelsea’s fans will not be able to crow that they are the champions of Europe for much longer, but if they overcome Benfica, they will become the first club to hold both European titles at the same time.
They are also bidding to become only the fourth team to have won the Champions League, the Europa League and the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup.
Chelsea beat Benfica in the quarter-finals en route to last season’s Champions League triumph, but Spanish midfielder Juan Mata remains wary of Jorge Jesus’ side.
“We’re playing against Benfica, a historic team in Europe that will be very tough to beat, as we saw last season in the Champions League,” he wrote on his personal blog on Monday.
Amsterdam was the scene of Benfica’s second European Cup triumph, in 1962, but it remains the last venue where they have tasted success in a European final. There have been six defeats since then, the most recent to AC Milan in the 1990 European Cup final.
There was fresh heartache on Saturday, when a stoppage-time goal gave Porto a 2-1 win over their closest rivals that took them to the brink of the Primeira Liga title.
Benfica coach Jesus fell to his knees in disbelief as a low shot by Porto substitute Kelvin crept in at the Estadio do Dragao, and he admitted it would be a challenge to rouse his players.
“It’s a difficult moment for us, because on Wednesday we’ve got a final and this loss has knocked us back,” he said.
Nonetheless, with 51 years having now passed since Benfica’s last continental title, there is no shortage of motivation.
“Benfica are always under pressure when they play, and we know that in every competition we take part in the aim is to get to the final and win,” he told uefa.com.
“I was born in ’54, but I know the history of the club because I have read about it and it is illustrated in photos at the training ground,” he said.