On the 15th of May, Benfica and Chelsea made their way to the Amsterdam ArenA, as they were to face off in the Europa League final. For Benfica, this game had added importance, after their defeat to Porto on the weekend meant that Porto had more or less clinched the league. For the Londoners and Rafa Benitez, the game was a chance at redeeming an otherwise trophy-less season.
Benfica lined up in a 4-3-3. Artur began the game at the back. The 4 man defence consisted of young Melgarejo on the left, and Almeida on the right. In the centre, the experienced Luisao and former Real Madrid player Garay. The midfielders who began the game were Rodrigo, Enzo Perez and former Chelsea man Matic. Up front, Salvio accompanied the dangerous duo of Nico Gaitan and Oscar Cardozo.
The London side started with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. At the back, Azpilicueta started on the right, and Ashley Cole on the left. Ivanovic and Cahill started in the absence of John Terry. Lampard and Luiz started in midfield. Ramires and Oscar started in the wide areas, and Mata started in behind the striker, Fernando Torres.
Benfica started the game playing at a high tempo, trying to ruffle Chelsea’s feathers. They played high up the pitch, and pressed Chelsea with great intensity. The strategy on Jorge Jesus’ part was to pressurise Chelsea into making mistakes, and then have his flair players capitalise. He also used energetic midfielders like Enzo Perez ahead of Pablo Aimar. The kind of pressure they wanted to exert is evident when you consider that the 3 highest tacklers in their side are Enzo Perez, Nico Gaitan and Salvio, 2 of whom were a part of the front 3.
The plan from Chelsea initially seemed to be to bore Benfica to death. In all seriousness, Benitez wanted to play a counter attacking game, that suited his team perfectly. He had the midfield playing deeper, and closer to the back 4, and they looked to kick stat their counter attacking moves by playing the ball down the right for the pacy Ramires. They wanted to draw Benfica onto them, and then get in behind the high line with the pace and strength of Fernando Torres. This plan worked like a charm, with the first goal coming from a long pass down the middle, and the second after Ramires won the corner. The passing, as a result was much longer than usual, with Chelsea attempting 52 long passes. When you consider that this was about 18% of all their passes, as compared to Benfica, for whom long balls comprised a much lower 12%, you can see where the thrust was.
Oscar Cardozo and Nicolas Gaitan have been a revelation in the Europa League, and have been crucial in their team getting to the finals of the competition. Therefore, Benitez needed a strategy to shut the door on them, as they were very capable of causing problems. In order to do so, Benitez pushed both his centre backs into narrow positions. This meant that there was less space across the penalty area for Benfica to exploit and play passes. Chelsea were also very deep, meaning that there wasn’t much space in behind to play through balls into. The fact that they employed a defensive outlook, where the aim was to protect the box, meant that they left space out wide. Benitez tried to cover this by making his offensive wide men, Ramires and Oscar, track back and perform defensive duties. This tactic didn’t especially work out well, with the Benfica full backs getting beyond them regularly. All in all, Benfica played a massive 27 crosses. The space out wide was there to be exploited, but Benfica didn’t make full use of it, as they didn’t really trouble Chelsea with their balls into the box, with the back 4 effecting 21 clearances in all. Gary Cahill stood above the rest with a fantastic 10 clearances. Petr Cech also got involved quite often, as the line was deep, and a number of balls were played between the line and the keeper. Crosses that were played in front of the defence were slightly more effective, but Benfica were guilty of wasting their chances.
Another tactic Chelsea used well was jockeying and marking spaces and passing angles, rather than go after the man on the ball. This systematic form of defending forced Benfica to play the ball back on a number of occasions. It was appropriate because the Benfica players had the movement, pace and passing ability to exploit pressing tactics, and so hanging back a little worked well for Chelsea.
The midfield dominance that Benfica enjoyed was no co-incidence. Of course, the defensive tactics employed by Chelsea were helpful, but their own tactics made it very hard for the Chelsea players to track them, and stop them playing. They managed to create a number of good chances which were wasted despite the numbers at the back. This was because unlike most teams, Benfica didn’t assign any of their midfielders fixed positions i.e. the trio were interchanging their roles on a regular basis. This made them hard to mark.
After Chelsea took the lead, the onus was on Benfica to attack. The Portugese giants decided to try and improve their success from balls into the box by adding more men to the area. In order to do this, Benfica sacrificed a little bit of defensive cover, switching to 3 at the back, as Melgarejo and Rodrigo were taken off to make room for Lima and Ola John, both of whom are attack minded players. This strategy meant that Benfica had more options in dangerous areas of the pitch, and were able to create a lot more danger. The goal came as a result of some good play in such an area, with Lima receiving a one-two and bursting into the box, only for Azpilicueta to get his hand on the ball. However, it also meant that Chelsea had a lot of space to exploit, and this was evident as the Blues were starting to pose a greater threat on the counter towards the end of the game.
In a big game, Chelsea managed to see off their opponents to clinch their second international trophy in as many years. Credit to Rafael Benitez and his team for doing a good job in this competition.
For Benfica though, the defeat will be a tough pill to swallow. They played very well throughout the game, but couldn’t find that little bit extra that was needed to see off their opponents. Losing a European final to a late goal like that, on the back of possibly losing the league to their fierce rivals on the weekend is going to be tough, and it should be interesting to see what Benfica and Jorge Jesus do next.