By Liam Twomey
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool past has blighted his time as Chelsea manager, but it is the jewel in his Anfield legacy which may provide the only source of hope for Blues fans when their side take on Swansea at the Liberty Stadium on Wednesday evening.
The Spaniard’s part in arguably the greatest European final ever in Istanbul eight years ago was experienced through gritted teeth by many of those who frequent Stamford Bridge, still seething over ‘ghost goals’, negative tactics and Champions League dreams shattered.
Yet now, with a two-goal deficit, a vociferous home support and an extremely impressive Swansea team standing between Chelsea and a first League Cup final appearance since 2007, the memory of that remarkable evening could spark unlikely optimism rather than anger.
In masterminding such an astonishing recovery against a hugely gifted and rampant Milan side, Benitez proved he could bring a team back from the abyss. Similar levels of resilience and fortitude will be required from a different set of players to rout Michael Laudrup’s men on their own pitch on Wednesday.
Of course, the stakes here are nowhere near as high. Still cherishing the memory of their own Champions League miracle, Blues fans are unlikely to be deeply troubled by their ultimate success or failure in England’s secondary cup competition.
That said, a stirring comeback followed by the lifting of a trophy in February would go some way towards lifting the gloom which has gathered around Stamford Bridge over the course of a season forever tainted by the brutal sacking of club legend Roberto Di Matteo.
Silverware is also paramount for Benitez who, with the Premier League title already out of reach, will measure his brief Chelsea reign by his level of success in cup competitions.
The Club World Cup proved nothing more than a time and energy-consuming folly, while there are many more challenges to overcome in the FA Cup and Europa League. The Capital One Cup presents the Spaniard with his best chance of glory yet, after a disastrous home leg against the Swans, his team must do things the hard way.
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Luckily for Benitez, though, he now finds himself at a club which shares his pedigree in knockout football. Since the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2007, Chelsea have won just one league title, but six cups.
The culture of short-termism which Roman Abramovich’s ‘sacking model’ has fermented at Stamford Bridge has proved largely incompatible with suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune inflicted by a league campaign, but there are few clubs better at dealing with the big, one-off, high-pressure occasion.
Undoubtedly Chelsea’s ‘golden generation’, which earned this reputation while realising the most successful era in the club’s history, are fading. Didier Drogba is gone, Frank Lampard will soon follow, and John Terry is not what he once was. But as last season’s Champions League run demonstrated, there remain enough drops of greatness to find the odd epic performance.
Together with the Blues’ extravagantly-gifted summer recruits the old guard will, however, need everything they have left to conjure a minimum three-goal margin of victory over a Swansea side who are truly formidable at home.
Of the traditional ‘big six’ teams, only Manchester United have emerged victorious from the Liberty Stadium since the Welsh club’s arrival in the Premier League – in November 2011, courtesy of a lone poacher’s strike from Chicharito and a diligent defensive effort. Smash and grab will just not do this time.
Swansea have the goals, quality, confidence and hunger to go on and win their first ever major trophy. All logic suggests it will be they, and not Chelsea, who will face League Two heroes Bradford City at Wembley on February 24.
But then, logic had no say in the Bantams’ passage to the final, nor in the Champions League triumphs which have written both the Blues and their interim boss into the pages of history. Sometimes football is governed by the fates, and Benitez will be hoping Wednesday proves another case in point.
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