Well, who ever thought it would come to this? You were able to get long odds about Rafa Benitez even lasting the season at Chelsea, never mind winning a trophy, but as the Spaniard leads his Blues team out in the Europa League final against Benfica on Wednesday, he could be on the brink of having the last laugh after all.
Amsterdam is a long way from Middlesbrough (in just about every sense) but it seemed a million miles away on February 27th when Benitez took to his seat at the press conference following his side’s 2-0 FA Cup win at the Riverside Stadium to berate the fans for their treatment of him, the board for his ‘interim’ title and the press for giving him a raw deal.
It seemed at the time like he was writing his own death warrant, perhaps even on purpose.
But when it looked for all the world he’d be given his marching orders, the former Liverpool boss somehow survived and ever since his outburst, Chelsea have thrived.
It looked impossible, but Rafa’s speech worked in his favour. Not all of the politicking in his career has been wise, but with Chelsea already assured of Champions League football next season with a game to spare, Benitez knows that if he could secure the Europa League trophy he could leave the Bridge with a quiet satisfaction about a job well done.
And I think come the end of 90 minutes, Chelsea will be celebrating holding both the Champions League and Europa League trophies at the same time. It might not have been what they imagined at the start of a season that could have brought seven trophies, but the Blues should be backed at 5/4 to get the job done.
The draw is 23/10, just a bit bigger than the Benfica win at 21/10, but Jorge Jesus’ side have hit the buffers at the worst time of the season and come into this final on the back of heartbreak in the league.
Benfica have been excellent for most of the season, but they have run out of steam at the crucial moment as they look to win a first European trophy for 51 years.
Going for a treble of Portuguese Liga, cup and Europa League, Jesus’ side have won just three of their last eight games in all competitions and look to have surrendered the title to Porto in dramatic circumstances at the weekend.
Benfica conceded a last-minute goal to lose 2-1 to their great rivals, their first domestic defeat of the campaign, and with Porto now a point ahead going into the final day of the season, it looks like the Lisbon giants have lost the league they have led for so long in the worst way possible.
And with Jesus confessing that his side’s schedule has left his squad tired, the Eagles travel to Amsterdam in their worst moment of the year.
The opposite is true of Chelsea, who are in their best form of the season. The fans certainly got off Rafa’s back to a significant degree after Middlesbrough, and they have been rewarded with 12 wins from their next 19 games in league and cup, and of late Benitez’s side have been in terrific form, winning six and drawing two (both 2-2 stalemates with Liverpool and Tottenham) of their last eight outings.
And while most of the Chelsea players are used to winning trophies with regularity, the same can’t be said of Benfica, who have the weight of history around their necks: the club has lost five consecutive European finals since Eusebio inspired his team to the European Cup in 1962, with Jesus admitting it is a curse the club needs to break.
But Benfica don’t look in top shape, and Chelsea can take advantage. At 5/4, back them to do so.