Europa League: Rafa Benitez eager to add to trophy haul
As the last English team left standing in European football, suddenly the Europa League, often an afterthought of a competition, has become serious for the club that was holding aloft the European Cup less than 12 months ago. Chelsea are three games away from a second consecutive European trophy, and that is the kind of legacy that would suit Rafa Benitez.
On the flight to Basel, the interim first-team manager returned to a theme that had been touched upon once before. "I think you were asking me 'How will you be remembered [at Chelsea]?'" he asked. "Professional, working hard, trying to do my best. On Sunday [against Liverpool] I was trying to win the game until the last minute, the 97th minute."
This has been the story of the last five months for Benitez at Chelsea – unloved, unappreciated and left to expound on his own achievements. He still expects to leave at the end of the summer, he said, and in the meantime he would like to add the Europa League to his list of honours and steer Chelsea to qualification for the Champions League next season.
As for the Chelsea supporters, they still have little more than contempt for Benitez, but they quite like the idea of a Europa League final against either Fenerbahce or Benfica in Amsterdam, the prize at stake over this tie. At Anfield on Sunday, the Chelsea manager was booed again by his own club's fans, this time for bringing on Yossi Benayoun for Eden Hazard. "Every game the manager knows his players," Benitez said. "We thought it was the right one. I am quite pleased with his performance."
Chelsea face a strong Basel side who have already accounted for Tottenham Hotspur in the previous round. Basel are top of the Swiss Super League by three points with eight games to play. If they win it this year it will be their eighth title in 12 seasons and when it comes to the remaining four in the Europa League they are the only current national champions.
It is also worth remembering that Basel started in the second qualifying round against Flora of Estonia on 17 July. It will be their 19th game in the competition this season. In the likes of Marco Streller, their 31-year-old captain, who comes from the city of Basel, the winger Valentin Stocker and the Egyptian Mohamed Salah, they have built one of the best teams the club has ever had.
The tone of the questions to the Basel manager, Murat Yakin, was that his team were in uncharted territory and had already outperformed all expectations. Yet eliminating Basel is by no means a straightforward task for Benitez. He has Gary Cahill and Ashley Cole fit again and both trained, although neither are expected to start.
As for Benitez, he has one eye on the future. "I'm managing a top side and... I think we are doing a good job. People can argue about it but with the circumstances and the number of games and the problems with the African Cup of Nations and Japan [Fifa Club World Cup] – and yet we have a chance. It depends on us.
"We can achieve another title and we can finish in the top three. People can see what I have achieved in the past. We are talking two years ago, not 20 years ago. If you are at a top side everyone can see you. A professional, not just a fan, can analyse things and say, 'Maybe that's right, maybe that's wrong', but we have a lot of positives."
He touched briefly upon Manchester United's 20th league title, only to say that it showed the strength of their squad, with the added suggestion that Chelsea's did not run so deep. As ever, Chelsea will be addressing that in the summer although, unfortunately for Benitez, he will not be around to feel the benefits.
Belfast Telegraph Digital