Rafa's reputation restored with Europa League glory

The Chelsea interim manager will depart Stamford Bridge this summer having sealed more silverware and Champions League football ahead of the likely arrival of Jose Mourinho
By Oliver Platt

There was a reminder of Rafa Benitez's illustrious past on the Benfica team sheet. Pablo Aimar did not play a part in this Europa League final, won by Branislav Ivanovic's last-minute header, but has already won the competition once, when it was known as the Uefa Cup, in 2004 with Valencia. Benitez was the coach when Los Che won the Spanish title twice in 2001-02 and 2003-04.

Only Real Madrid and Barcelona managers have achieved the feat since. Benitez wins trophies. He builds football clubs and teams and gives them an identity but, unlike many coaches of undoubted competence, the process almost always delivers an end result.

The reputation he built at Mestalla was further grown at Liverpool - he has history, you may remember, in dramatic European victories like this one - but after considerable success in the battle with his likely successor at Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, his reign with the Reds ended under a cloud and an ill-fated spell at Inter Milan followed. Again, Mourinho played a part - it has proven consistently difficult for clubs to build on his success.

Despite his credentials, then, and even aside from the baggage that accompanied his appointment in west London, Benitez had a reputation to restore. In truth, Chelsea were somewhat fortunate to win in Amsterdam, but the Spaniard played his part and can be credited for successfully putting a halt to Benfica's strong start; his team's second half was certainly better than their first.



The Blues found a way to win and did so in circumstances that are perhaps underappreciated. Including internationals, Juan Mata, Petr Cech, Fernando Torres, Eden Hazard and Branislav Ivanovic have all played more than 60 matches this season. Many more have played more than 50 - it is no wonder that they looked a little leggy when confronted by a gifted Benfica midfield.

"We didn't have the legs," Benitez told ITV. "We had to adjust and push them and in the end they deserve it because they've been working so hard the whole season."

"The first half was not good enough at all, in any way," Torres added. "The intensity, the concentration. We talked about changing [at half-time] our mentality to win a final, it's a final. Maybe this would be the only chance to win a Europa League so you saw a difference in the second half."

Benitez had been sought out by Roman Abramovich prior to Roberto Di Matteo's sacking - he was also considered after Andre Villas-Boas was dismissed - in the hope that he might spark Torres into life following a £50 million move from Liverpool that was looking increasingly like a colossal mistake.

5/1 Fernando Torres is 5/1 with Coral to score the first goal in Chelsea v Everton
Whether the striker will ever return consistently to his previous best continues to be unclear but this final capped a return to form under his Reds mentor. Torres has scored nine goals in Europe this season and trails only Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski. The Europa League, of course, has been a kinder environment than that duo have faced but Torres had drawn level with Oscar Cardozo until Benfica's feared frontman levelled the game from the penalty spot.

The boos have subsided on the road to Amsterdam but even on an occasion like this one Benitez could not escape the blunt feelings of the Chelsea supporters. A banner reading "we want Mourinho" hung in the stands of the Ajax stadium and the Spaniard has known that his primary task was always to set the table for the Portuguese's arrival.

He has done so with dignity, and his reward could be a very attractive job in the French capital. "You never know," he hinted when asked by Bein Sport whether a move to Paris Saint-Germain could be on the cards. Manchester City look set on Manuel Pellegrini but certainly could have done worse than consider Benitez.

A younger Chelsea team making a habit of winning trophies against the odds has had its hunger for silverware replenished and will compete in the Champions League next season. One club will be very lucky to make this interim manager their permanent leader.

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