By Liam Twomey
On Wednesday evening, Chelsea will contest the final of a tournament they have never before entered in a stadium they have never before played, bidding – if only for a week – to become the first team in history to hold both major European titles simultaneously.
Yet this will hardly be a trip into the great unknown. Benfica are familiar opponents, having been vanquished home and away en route to last season’s miraculous Champions League triumph, even if the Portuguese giants’ yearly tradition of selling some of their prized assets will inevitably add a dash of freshness to proceedings.
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Luiz goes into the clash against his former club in fine form, having excelled in a defensive midfield role in recent weeks
The diminutive midfielder provides an all-energy presence for the Blues, breaking up attacks before bursting forward
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Indeed, Rafa Benitez admitted last week that central to his preparations would be the insight offered by two of Jesus’ most illustrious former disciples, now resident at Stamford Bridge.
"I have some ideas about Benfica, but I will talk with Ramires and David Luiz and they will give me more information," he revealed. "They know Portuguese football, they know the players and they know the team. It will be important for me. We have an idea already but they will give me more."
The roles of Ramires and Luiz will extend far beyond the remit of mere tactical consultants, however. Familiarity is the obvious narrative, and both Brazilians have already been asked countless questions about the imminent renewal of old acquaintances, but the outcome of this Europa League final will hinge far more on what has happened since they left Estadio da Luz.
As Chelsea tread nervously into an era no longer dominated by Frank Lampard’s goals, John Terry’s strength of personality, Petr Cech’s unflappable coolness or Didier Drogba’s sheer force of will, new leaders are gradually beginning to emerge: Juan Mata who, for all his class, glides around the pitch with a steely-eyed determination, and the two Benfica old boys.
Off the pitch, Luiz does not come across as a fiercely competitive individual or a formidably authoritative presence. It’s not just the frizzy barnet, which gives the impression of a man who would gladly spend every morning chasing the surf if back in his native Brazil. It’s the demeanour, too: the unassuming grin which appears permanently fixed, the pranks he plays and jokes he shares with team-mates and, of course, the knowing humour in his adoption of the word ‘geezer’.
On it, though, Luiz reveals the implacable need to overcome which drives all winners. His defining moment in a Blue shirt came in Munich when, having summoned incredible reserves of strength to marshall Chelsea’s battered defence through 120 gruelling minutes despite carrying a hamstring injury, he embarked on a Roberto Carlos-esque run-up with his side 2-0 down in the penalty shootout. Thousands of hearts sank at the sight, only to rise again as he slammed the ball into the top corner side-footed. It was an extraordinary display of impudence and defiance in front of legions of opposition fans, and it tipped the psychological scales.
This season the 26-year-old has served with distinction in defence and midfield, providing assurance and even creativity on the ball, as well as scoring crucial and often spectacular goals, two of which came in the 5-2 aggregate semi-final mauling of Basel.
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Suspension denied ‘The Blue Kenyan’ the chance to feature in the final, and Roberto Di Matteo was deprived of a footballer who thrives on the big occasion. This term three of Ramires’ eight goals have come against Manchester United, while another was suffered by Tottenham in last week's top-four crunch clash.
On first glance he, too, a short, spindly, loping presence in midfield, appears an unlikely source of influence within a trophy-hunting team. Yet he leads by example, working tirelessly to break up opposition attacks, surging past defenders with the ball to create transition opportunities for his team-mates and, significantly, weighing in with vital goals.
Yet both Luiz and Ramires remain, to an extent, works in progress. The competitive edge which has led them to the top of the European game can still sometimes cloud their more admirable qualities. Luiz has shown himself to be a little ‘elbow-happy’ of late, and neither he nor his countryman are above an over-zealous challenge or impetuous foul, as Ramires proved with Saturday's rash dismissal against Aston Villa. There can be no room for such ill-discipline if Chelsea are to defeat a very capable and confident Benfica side, albeit on the back of surrendering the Portuguese title to rivals Porto.
For two of Brazil’s finest, Wednesday will certainly provide a pleasant blast from the past. For Chelsea, it might also provide a timely glimpse into the future.
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