Rafael Benitez claims he did not need to win the Europa League to prove that he has done a good job during his turbulent six-month spell as interim manager of Chelsea.
The London club stunned SL Benfica with a stoppage-time goal from Branislav Ivanovic in Wednesday’s final to record a 2-1 win that gave them a second consecutive European title after last season’s Champions League triumph.
With Champions League qualification also secure, barring a statistical fluke on the final day of the Premier League season, Benitez has fulfilled the objectives that he was given when he arrived in November last year.
However, the Spaniard, who has had to contend with outright opposition from sections of the Chelsea support, said Wednesday’s result had not turned him into a successful manager in one fell swoop.
“I think it’s sad to say this. You do your job in six months and it changes nothing if you win or lose the final, in terms of what you’re trying to do,” said Benitez, who has now won three continental titles.
“With a team in transition, with young players, it was really difficult, but we are still winning and you saw the commitment of the players on the pitch,” he added. “When you have a manager who is going to leave at the end of the season and they still fight on the pitch, you have to be pleased.”
Ivanovic’s winner, in the third minute of stoppage-time, saw him leap to meet a Juan Mata corner with a looping back-post header that left Benfica goalkeeper Artur flat-footed.
The goal, after Fernando Torres’ opener had been canceled by an Oscar Cardozo penalty, left Jorge Jesus’ men no time to react. Benitez said his side had been given some inside knowledge on the Portuguese team’s defensive shortcomings by former Benfica player David Luiz.
“The second goal we had practiced, as we know they have a weak point on corners,” Benitez said. “The technical staff worked on this, but David Luiz also said they had problems there, so we tried to take advantage from all of this.”
Benitez also claimed credit for the improved form of both Torres and Frank Lampard, whose contract was extended for another season yesterday.
“I will say nothing about Frank except that he’s a great professional and is working hard in every training session,” Benitez said. “Now you can see he has improved. People are surprised, but he has scored a lot of goals in this time and maybe it’s because we have been managing him well and keeping him fresher.”
On Torres, who blossomed under Benitez at Liverpool, he added: “We have had a lot of players improve during the season. Fernando was one of these players. People said Rafa was appointed to get the best out of Fernando and I think he’s improved a lot. He’s worked a lot with the fitness coaches and I was happy for him to score.”
Jesus claimed his team would have been “worthy winners,” after a second agonizing stoppage-time defeat in the space of five days.
Benfica’s Primeria Liga title hopes were seriously jeopardized by a 2-1 loss to FC Porto on Saturday and Jesus said he was at a loss to explain the pattern.
“In the 93rd minute, once again, we suffered a goal like last week,” he said. “It’s not usual for a team like Benfica. I can’t say we were unlucky. We had to do something and we didn’t do it in that minute, but I want to congratulate the Benfica players for an excellent game.”
Jesus, who hinted that he was close to renewing his contract, said he had found solace in the words of a Dutch soccer great Johan Cruyff.
“I was more proud when Johan Cruyff hugged me and said Benfica were a great team,” he said.
Additional reporting by staff writer