Where it was won
Chelsea overcame a difficult first half against Benfica to win the Europa League in dramatic circumstances as Branislav Ivanovic headed home in stoppage time. Adam Bate talks us through the tactics of a game that he feels hinged on a second-half substitution by the Portuguese side.
By Adam Bate in Amsterdam
Last Updated: 25/05/13 5:28pm
The two sides could hardly have had more contrasting fortunes at the weekend. Chelsea secured UEFA Champions League qualification for next season with a comeback victory at Aston Villa with their supporters getting the chance to cheer Frank Lampard becoming the club's all-time top scorer thanks to a brace that included a late winner.
Benfica, on the other hand, suffered the potentially decisive blow of falling behind in a title race they've led since early March when conceding a stoppage-time winner to lose by the same 2-1 scoreline to Porto. As it transpired, events in Amsterdam would mimic those in the Estadio do Dragao. How much the weekend loss affected the belief of the players only they can know.
Chelsea were without two prominent players after John Terry and Eden Hazard were injured against Villa on Saturday. The loss of the captain and the team's most direct creative threat could have been a huge negative but with centre-back Branislav Ivanovic being named man of the match and Ramires ultimately emerging as the game's pivotal figure in a wide role, their absence did not prove costly.
Chelsea supporters could reasonably have expected their full-backs to be a key attacking strength on the night, especially with Oscar on the left and Ramires on the right both more comfortable moving inside. Cesar Azpilicueta certainly has a lot more attacking potential in the role and given that Benfica were also without the experience of the suspended right-back Maxi Pereira, both flanks were an area the Blues could surely have expected to exploit from the start.
As it turned out, the opposite proved to be the case in the first half as Azpilicueta was penned back by Nicolas Gaitan with Eduardo Salvio doing a similar job against Ashley Cole on the Chelsea left. Despite his defensive awareness, the tendency for Ramires to be sucked inside allowed left-back Lorenzo Melgarejo to enjoy regular overload situations and Benfica almost found the breakthrough when he got in behind Azpilicueta only for Cole to block Salvio's effort.
The Argentine winger had another opportunity just minutes later when Cole tucked in to cover the threat in the centre and Oscar was caught out tracking back. The Brazilian regularly found himself in defensive positions he did not want to be in and it was not a huge surprise when he went in the book for a desperate foul on Enzo Perez.
Chelsea possession problems
The full-backs are often the out-ball when Chelsea are in possession but they could offer little going forward before the break, such was the pressing of the Benfica wide-men. This had the knock-on effect of Oscar and Ramires also being deep and leaving Fernando Torres looking isolated. Azpilicueta, in particular, resorted to hopeful long passes up to Torres because - with David Luiz also struggling to find space away from Rodrigo - he had so few options on the ball. Chelsea equalled their lowest pass completion rate of the season in the first half.
Mata in space
Curiously, it was clear from up in the stands that Juan Mata did have plenty of space in which to play - if only he could get the ball. Nemanja Matic is nominally the holding midfielder but he was keen to engage the Chelsea midfield higher up, as indicated by an early cynical challenge on Ramires for which he was fortunate to escape a yellow card, and this move did leave Mata to drift around in a classic No 10 area.
But getting the ball to him proved a major problem for Chelsea with Lampard setting the tone early on when a simple forward pass went astray. The two midfield man actually swapped positions at one stage with the Spaniard showing just how dangerous he could be by almost putting Oscar clean through with a delightful through-ball. Unfortunately for Chelsea, he was more wasteful when given the opportunity to play in the same player on the rare occasion he did receive the ball in an advanced position.
While Mata was not getting enough chances to create chances, Benfica were squandering openings of their own at the other end. In contrast to the deserted Torres, Oscar Cardozo had fellow red shirts swarming around him in the final third. Picking the right pass was the issue rather than scratching around to find one but Benfica were guilty of overplaying. Ivanovic, Cole and Gary Cahill are all expert blockers but it was the unnecessary dallying of the opposition that gave the Chelsea defenders the chance to be heroes. Azpilicueta also came across well to block from Rodrigo early in the second half.
After the break
The pattern looked set to continue after the interval with Ramires still struggling to get forward and Melgarejo seemingly growing into the game - buying a foul from Ramires with a nice drop of the shoulder. But a route one goal from nothing by Torres turned the game and forced Jorge Jesus into attacking substitutions that would define the remainder of the contest. Lima replaced Rodrigo further forward, while Ola John came on for Melgarejo with Gaitan moving behind the Dutchman to play at left-back.
Jesus could have been forgiven for having immediate doubts about his changes. They were designed to get Benfica back into the game but Azpilicueta's handball allowed Oscar Cardozo to do that from the penalty spot within two minutes of their arrival. When Ezequiel Garay was injured and replaced at centre-back with 12 minutes of normal time remaining it left him committed to a line-up that looked vulnerable.
Garay had been an important figure before the break in stepping across to help Melgarejo on the rare occasions that Ramires did get forward in advance of his full-back. Gaitan is not a natural defender and he could have done with that support from the man inside him in the final stages - he certainly wasn't getting it from John in front of him with the Dutchman happy to remain in an advanced role.
The consequence of this was that Ramires was finally able to enjoy his evening. The Brazilian has remarkable energy and it was his stamina that surely persuaded Benitez to do something by doing nothing - leaving Moses on the bench and making no substitutions in reply to Benfica's three. The Chelsea boss opted to just let things play out and it proved key.
Twice Mata came close to putting Ramires through on goal for a one-on-one chance against Artur with the first rightly called back for offside. But the pass was clearly on. After 84 minutes, Gaitan was sucked badly out of position allowing Ramires in behind only for Luisao to block brilliantly and deny the Chelsea man a winning goal. Even so, that goal did come when Azpilicueta played a simple pass down the line that Ramires was in space to collect and win a corner off Jardel with Gaitan once again nowhere to be seen. Mata and Ivanovic combined to do the rest and Chelsea had won the Europa League.
The opening goal by Torres came from a Petr Cech long throw that travelled straight down the centre of the field - as direct as they come. The equaliser was a penalty won by a handball and the stoppage-time winner was a header from a corner, albeit one from the training ground with Benitez claiming in his press conference that Chelsea had worked on exposing a weakness at the back post.
But for all the simplicity of the goals, the shape of the game did play its part in this triumph. Chelsea were almost completely stifled by Benfica's pressing early on and it was only after Torres scored that Jesus blinked first. The changes allowed Ramires the freedom he needed and it felt like only a matter of time before Gaitan was punished.
|0||1st Half Goals||0|
|3||Shots on Target||5|
|7||Shots off Target||4|
|62.7||1st Half Poss.||37.3|
|51.5||2nd Half Poss.||48.5|