Chelsea wins the Europa League following 2-1 win over Benfica
Branislav Ivanovic scored in the final minute of stoppage time
Fernando Torres had given Chelsea the lead on 59 minutes
Oscar Cardozo equalized from penalty spot before late Ivanovic winner
Rubbished, reviled, rejected. Rafa.
As he posed on the Amsterdam Arena pitch with the glistening Europa League trophy in his hand, Rafael Benitez might have wondered what all the fuss had been about.
Branislav Ivanovic’s dramatic late winner secured a 2-1 win victory over Benfica and left Chelsea’s interim manager with every right to feel proud.
When he replaced Champions League-winning coach Roberto Di Matteo last November, he was welcomed into a cauldron of hate by Chelsea supporters.
Despised by those in blue following his time with Liverpool, the new interim manager was mercilessly mocked, abused and verbally attacked in the stands and on radio phone-in shows.
Perhaps more respect should have been afforded to a man who had led Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005 and Valencia to La Liga success in 2002 and 2004.
Instead, banners proclaimed “We’re just not interim” were unfurled, and Benitez was left to fight an uphill battle against those who detested his very presence on the touchline at Stamford Bridge.
But after securing Champions League football for next season and claiming the Europa League trophy, perhaps he will even be afforded a warm goodbye when he relinquishes his role after Sunday’s game against Everton.
Benitez’s latest triumph comes just two months after his infamous rant at the club’s supporters following his side’s FA Cup victory at second division side Middlesbrough.
His attack on those who had delighted in criticizing his tenure may have raised eyebrows and earned him a censure from the club’s board, but it finally showed who was in charge.
Read: Benitez booed as Chelsea fans protest
Popularity has never been important to the Spaniard. But Benitez helped Chelsea salvage a season which had threatened to fall apart after it became the first ever defending title holder to drop out of the Champions League at the group stage.
The Blues became the first team to win Europe’s top prize and then its secondary competition in successive seasons, though Porto managed the feat in reverse order before coach Jose Mourinho – widely tipped to rejoin Chelsea – moved to Stamford Bridge in 2004.
A third-place finish and victory in the Europa League is more than respectable for Benitez, who was forced to swim against a tide of hate from the very start.
He is just the second man after Giovanni Trapattoni to win the competition with two different clubs following his triumph with Valencia in 2004 when it was known as the UEFA Cup.
All that, despite being faced with placards and posters calling for his head and being vilified at every opportunity.
In the end, as he stood facing the Chelsea fans with the silverware in his hands, he could afford a little smile.
If Jose Mourinho is the man to come in, then at least Benitez can be content with leaving his old adversary with a winning team.
“That was a great performance in the second half, against a very good team,” Benitez told ITV following the victory.
“I’m really pleased for the players and everyone involved.
“We didn’t have the legs in the first half, so we had to adapt. They players have worked so hard, all season. I am proud - it was not easy. I’m really pleased, really proud.”
Read: Can Benitez banish Chelsea’s blues?
It could have been different had Chelsea’s opponent, Benfica, managed to take some of the chances afforded to it on a night of drama.
Benfica began the brighter of the two, its players producing some sumptuous one-touch football which left Chelsea chasing shadows.
As in Munich 12 months ago, Chelsea spent much of the first half ensconced in its own half, desperately trying to prevent the Portuguese side from making the breakthrough it so badly craved.
But for all the wonderful flowing football, Benfica’s deficiencies in front of goal were all too evident as it failed to convert any of the chances which came its way.
Instead, it was Chelsea in a rare foray into the Benfica half which almost took the lead seven minutes before the break when Frank Lampard’s rasping effort was clawed away by Artur.
That scare appeared to reinvigorate Benfica and the Portuguese side almost moved ahead just minutes after the restart.
Nicolas Gaitan found space on the right and his exquisite cross was headed home by Oscar Cardozo – only for his celebrations to be cut short by an offside flag.
While the decision was the correct one, Cardozo was millimeters offside, it was the source of much frustration to a Benfica side which quickly found itself behind.
There appeared little trouble when Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech threw the ball out towards Juan Mata and when he failed to take control, Fernando Torres nipped in to run at the Benfica defense and coolly slot the ball home.
To its credit, Benfica refused to buckle and Jorge Jesus’ side hit back within nine minutes to level when Cardozo fired home from the penalty spot following a handball by Cesar Azpilicueta.
Buoyed by its equalizer, Benfica pushed forward in search of a winner and Cech produced a fine save to push Cardozo’s fierce drive over the crossbar.
But while the red shirts poured forward, Chelsea looked dangerous on the break and Frank Lampard came within inches of winning the tie after his rasping 20-yard effort smashed against the crossbar with two minutes remaining.
Read: Mourinho pulling no punches
The game appeared destined for extra time with the scores still level going into the final minute of stoppage time.
But after Ramires won a corner on the Chelsea right, Ivanovic rose highest to meet Mata’s corner and head a dramatic winner.
“It’s a great feeling,” Ivanovic told ITV.
“This team deserved this, because we have had a very difficult season and a lot of games.
“In the end, today was a very hard game and Benfica played very well. But we scored from set pieces and work very hard preparing that part of our game. We deserve that trophy.”
It was fitting that Ivanovic should score the winner after he was forced to miss last year’s Champions League final triumph over Bayern Munich through suspension.
Frank Lampard, who became the club’s record goalscorer last weekend after taking his tally to 203, was quick to praise the Serbia defender and reveal he is close to signing a new contract.
“It’s been an amazing time for all of us involved,” he told ITV.
“Talk about ups and downs in the last two years! But this is a big up. We’re a group, a team, and it was tight tonight after the long season we’ve had.
“No-one deserves this more than Ivanovic – he has been fantastic. You make your own luck, and we stick together in this group. The club deserve it.
“I really, really hope to be around next year. With a game tonight and coming up we haven’t sat down and signed anything, but I really hope so and things are looking good. The club have been brilliant.”
For Torres, it means he is now a reigning World Cup winner, European Championship winner, Champions League winner and Europa League winner – the first for any player.
“I am very happy,” the Spain international told ITV.
“It was a very tough game, and Benfica were much better in the first half. The first half was not good enough at all. We really wanted to win this Europe League, and maybe this was going to be our only chance.”
Read: Benfica and ‘the curse of Bela Guttmann’
This defeat caps a miserable week for Benfica, which looks set to lose out on the Portuguese league title following a dramatic late defeat by rival Porto.
Benfica has now lost its past seven major European Cup finals – all of which have come since being hit by the infamous “Bela Guttmann curse”.
Guttmann, a Hungarian coach, led Benfica to glory in the European Cup, winning the competition in 1961 and 1962.
But after his request for a pay rise was turned down by the newly elected president Antonio Carlos Cabral Fezas Vital, Guttmann placed a curse on the club and declared it would not win the European Cup for another 100 years.
Not even the great Eusebio, one of Benfica’s most famous sons, was able to help lift the curse when he visited Guttmann’s grave before Benfica’s defeat in the 1990 European Cup final.
The curse appears to now include Europe’s second trophy – much to the dismay of the club’s manager Jesus.
“The Benfica fans were better than the Chelsea fans,” Jesus told a press conference.
“They deserved a Benfica victory for their passion and their feelings and the patriotism they showed.
“This defeat is difficult for me because of the Benfica fans. For most of the 93 minutes, Benfica was always better than Chelsea.”