Europa League: Chelsea and Benfica set to make big-time experience count
By Dan Wheeler
So, what will prove more valuable on the road to Amsterdam: big-big experience or the insouciance of the first timers? It’s an intriguing sub-plot to the the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League as former European champions Chelsea and Benfica were drawn against last-four newbies Basel and Fenerbahce respectively.
Chelsea’s seemingly endless season will now include at least two more matches as Rafa Benitez’s team secured their second cup semi-final in ten days with their 5-4 win over Rubin Kazan.
Swiss side Basel, who ended Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes on penalties to get to this stage, will be playing their first ever European semi-final. Chelsea, by contrast, are gunning for a second-successive European triumph following their dramatic Champions League victory against Bayern Munich last season.
Undeniably Chelsea will have the edge in big-match experience. The Londoners greatest enemy will be fatigue. They have already played 56 times and are on a run of five games in 12 days. By the time the first leg with Basel comes round, it will be their ninth match in 26 days.
They have the squad to cope though and, in Fernando Torres, they appear to have a striker who has found a competition to his liking. The Spain international’s struggles in the Premier League are well documented but, in Europe, he is enjoying himself much more with four goals from six appearances and proving a handful on the ground and in the air.
Some words of caution: Chelsea’s only previous meeting with a Swiss side ended in defeat against St Gallen in 2000.
Basel have got better as the tournament as progressed. Crucially, their form away from home has improved when it’s mattered most. In the group stages they failed to win at all and scored only one goal. Their vibrant display at White Hart Lane in their 2-2 draw with Spurs shows what they are capable of though. Striker Marco Streller will be a nuisance and Chelsea will have to nullify the craft of Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker. Fabian Frei is among the most effervescent midfield men too. No team is more dangerous from set pieces than the Swiss side, with seven goals already scored.
They will know how powerful Chelsea will be at Stamford Bridge in the second leg, so a lead from the first leg at St.Jakob Park is a must. History is not with them. In nine previous match ups against English side in England they’ve yet to win. If they can’t break that sequence, Chelsea should be odds-on to make the final.
The disparity in European experience is also evident in the second semi-final, where former European Champions Benfica take on semi-final rookies Fenerbahce.
Benfica have reached this stage for the second time in three seasons and will no doubt spend some time reminding the Turks their only previous meeting in 1975-76 ended in a 7-1 aggregate thrashing.
Their coach Jorge Jesus has got his team to pick themselves up from the disappointment of losing out to Celtic in their Champions League group by making impressive, unbeaten, progress in the knock-out stages in the Europa League.
Bayern Leverkusen, Bordeaux and Newcastle have all been dismissed with aplomb, despite some late jitters at St.James’ Park in the final hurdle to the last four.
Paraguay striker Oscar Cardozo’s four goals in six matches have done much to propel the Portuguese comfortable passage as well as his own name into the spotlight for a potential move this summer.
Cardozo may well have to be at his sharpest because Fenerbahce have been granite-hard at the back in this competition, particularly away from home. Their 1-1 draw at Lazio, that clinched their semi-final place. was their sixth away game without defeat and equalled the competition record.
They have a well-balance side with a healthy spine of Bekir Irtegun, Raul Meireles, Christian, and the ever-buzzing Dirk Kuyt. Pierre Webo, with two goals and an assist in this last three games, is an in-form threat at the tip of the Turk attack.
Fenerbahce’s resilience on the road means the home leg, up first, may not carry as much importance as is usual in these ties. That said, it would be a brave tipster to back against Benfica coming through.
Basel and Fenerbahce will be confident, care-free and will feel they have nothing to lose now. Benfica and Chelsea, by contrast, will have that burning desire not to be usurped. They will be expected to meet in the final and, almost certainly, will.