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Europa League Final Preview

With Chelsea and Benfica facing off in the Europa League Final, Paddy Naughtin discusses who will claim the highly regarded European silverware.

Chelsea will go into the 2013 Europa League Final at Amsterdam Arena Thursday morning (AEST) as favourites, having been in exceptional form in the past couple of weeks. They are currently on an eight-match unbeaten streak, and last lost to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-finals.

While the Blues entered into seven different competitions in 2012/13, they remain trophyless in the campaign to date. This is their final chance to claim the success Chelsea owner, Roman Abramovich, so desperately craves and demands.

Benfica, on the other hand, has to rebound from a demoralising loss to Portugese Primeira Liga rivals FC Porto on the weekend. The defeat means the Encarnados slip into second place, one point behind Porto with only one match left in the league season.

Benfica will be hoping that the upcoming fixture will be third-time lucky against Chelsea. The previous head-to-head meeting was in the Champions League quarter-finals last year, with the Blues emerging victorious in both legs. In the first encounter, Benfica dominated much of the game, but were found wanting when Chelsea hit them on the break and scored through Salomon Kalou. The Portuguese giants never really got going in the second leg, with a red card given to Maxi Pereira and a penalty awarded to Frank Lampard all before half-time.

This may be Benfica’s best chance to beat Chelsea, as the London club may be forced to field a weakened side; injuries to key players in the 2-1 win against Aston Villa last weekend may hurt the Blues’ chances. John Terry had to be stretchered off, and dynamic playmaker Eden Hazard left the field clutching his hamstring. Chelsea will also be unable to play Demba Ba, due to the Senegalese striker appearing for Newcastle in the early stages of the Europa competition before transferring. This means Fernando Torres will almost certainly start up front.

Chelsea’s run to the final

After winning the Champions League last year, Chelsea became the first club to not make it past the group stage in the following season. Finishing third in their group, behind Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk, meant that Chelsea qualified for the Europa League’s round of 32.

In this round they met Sparta Prague and were lucky to escape through to the next round. After winning the first leg 1-0, Chelsea stumbled and were down 1-0 at Stamford Bridge. Hazard popped up with a crucial strike in the 92nd minute to save the Blues, sending them through 2-1 on aggregate.

Chelsea looked just as shaky in the first leg of its round of 16 tie with Steau Bucharest. Rafael Benitez’s men didn’t play well and lost the away match 1-0. However, they responded well at home, with a rousing 3-1 win – sparking a real turning point in Chelsea’s season.

They made quick work of quarter-final opponents Rubin Kazan, snatching a 3-1 win at home; then went on to lose the second leg 3-2, but qualified for the next round with the away goals rule.

Not many people gave FC Basel a chance in the semi-finals, yet they looked set to share the spoils 1-1 thanks to a late penalty. However, David Luiz’s magnificent free-kick in stoppage time sealed a dramatic win and gave Chelsea a huge advantage going into the second leg at Stamford Bridge. Despite only needing a draw, Chelsea went on the attack and ran out 3-1 winners to storm into tomorrow’s final.

Benfica’s run to the final

Benfica, like Chelsea, was expected to make it out of the Champions League group stage, but had to settle for third behind Barcelona and surprise-packet Celtic.

The Encarnados breezed past Bayern Leverkusen in the round of 32, winning 3-1 on aggregate. They looked in control, and were never really at risk of losing the tie.

In the round of 16 against Bordeaux, Benfica once again outclasses its opponents. After a 1-0 win at home they then went on the attack, winning the second leg 3-2. Impressively, they twice scored goals immediately in response to the French outfit equalizing the match.

Benfica were also relatively untroubled by its quarter-final opponent Newcastle United. Jorge Jesus’s team did fall behind in the 12th minute, but responded well and powered to a 3-1 home victory. The 1-1 draw in the second leg was enough for them progress to the next stage.

Fenerbache provided the first real test for Benfica in the semi-finals, inflicting a 1-0 defeat on the Portuguese giants – their first loss of the competition. However, they bounced back and destroyed the Turkish side 3-1 in the second leg, giving Benfica a chance to win its first European cup in 52 years.

Who will win?

For Benfica, defence will be the key. Captain Luisao will need to be on top of his game, while forwards Lima and Oscar Cardoza will have to make the most of the limited opportunities they are likely to receive.

Chelsea has slipped up against some of the Premier League’s minnows this season, so it’s likely that they will do something similar again. Having said this, the Blues should have enough skill to cruise past Benfica. It will be up to players like Juan Mata, Oscar, and Ramires to create opportunities and hope that Fernando Torres can provide the clinical finish required.

Prediction: Chelsea 2 – 0 Benfica 

Paddy NaughtinTHUMBPaddy Naughtin is a third year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University, and a current staff writer for upstart. He is also an avid Chelsea fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaddyNaughtin.

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