Although it is most definitely the lesser European competition, the Europa League has produced plenty of excitement and drama this season. It hasn’t been lacking in quality either and so it isn’t surprising to find two top-notch teams in Benfica and Chelsea in the final.
Both sides made it into the competition via third place finishes in their respective Champions League groups. Chelsea in particular have played an incredible amount of games this season, more than any other side in Europe, and edged their way through to the finals. Apart from their convincing 5-2 aggregate semi-final win against FC Basel, they got through with just a one goal advantage in the other rounds.
The amount of games seems to have taken its toll on the squad despite Rafa Benitez’s rotation policy. John Obi Mikel, John Terry and Eden Hazard are all unlikely to play a part through injury while Demba Ba is cup-tied. Benfica will be looking to take advantage of some weary legs in the Chelsea side.
However, while the Blues are galvanized by their crucial comeback win against Aston Villa in the Premier League, Benfica’s defeat to FC Porto over the weekend in the penultimate game of the Portuguese league has seen their rivals climb above them to first place in the table. The league title will be decided on the final day of the season and that could prove to be a distraction.
From a tactical perspective, this should be a fascinating encounter. There’s almost nothing to choose between the two squads with Benfica possessing their own set of stars.
While Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation can wreak havoc if they bypass their opponents’ midfield, Benfica’s 4-1-3-2 system will ask the English side’s defense plenty of questions. The Portuguese play at a high tempo and will look to close down their opponents as quickly as possible. They will want to play the ball towards their forwards as soon as they win possession.
A player who could prove to be a hassle for the Blues is Rodrigo Lima, Benfica’s striker and second top goal scorer this season with 28 to his name just behind Oscar Cardozo who has 31. It’s worth mentioning though that the latter is the designated penalty taker and that’s helped him stay ahead of his colleague.
Lima was signed on the last day of the summer transfer window last year and has proved to be one of the buys of the season. He is capable of leading the line in place of Cardozo and is accomplished on either flank. But it’s when the duo are played up front together that they cause the most problems.
While Cardozo is great at leading the line, Lima is the busier of the two and can drop into pockets of space between the midfield and defense. With his strike partner keeping the center-backs busy, Lima may be able to drop deep without being picked up. Neither David Luiz nor Ramires play in a traditional anchorman role in midfield so the space will be there for Lima to exploit.
Meanwhile, a former Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic could play a vital role in this encounter. With Hazard injured and Victor Moses staying in a wide position, Oscar and Juan Mata will be easier to keep track of. Mata is likely to play in the hole predominantly with the Brazilian starting on the left.
Matic has made a massive impact on Benifica as a holding midfielder since his arrival and he could keep Mata quiet, thereby shielding the back four. If the Spaniard switches with Oscar, Matic should be alert enough to deal with the danger. If Hazard was available and the trio constantly interchanged, that might have been too much for the Serbian international to handle.
However, Hazard’s absence could just as easily work in Chelsea’s favour if they make the most of the situation. It’s a proven fact that when the ‘three amigos’ are on the pitch together, Chelsea lack width but when Moses is introduced, they gain an outlet in a wide position which can stretch the play and create more space centrally.
While Fernando Torres’ pace might take him past Luisao comfortably, evading Ezequiel Garay won’t be easy. What Benfica could struggle against is the threat of two of their former players in Luiz and Ramires as the duo could be employed in midfield. Luiz’s forays into the attacking third and Ramires’ bombing runs forward could hurt the Portuguese side with Enzo Perez playing in an attacking midfield role, thereby leaving space in behind him.
It is a risky ploy from Benfica as they could either cut open Chelsea’s defense or suffer on the break. They’ll be walking a tight rope. They could switch to a 4-3-3 with Perez dropping back, maybe Pablo Aimar coming into the side and Lima playing down either flank. That would certainly solidify the core of the team.With their league title under threat, Benfica will want to secure the Europa League while Chelsea are desperate to make their last attempt at silverware this season count after squandering six opportunities so far. Benfica’s form and the fact that they have plenty of star quality among their ranks promises to make this a closely contested final and whoever emerges victorious will have to on top of their game.
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