It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Chelsea, but while the perennial Premier League title chasers are well off the pace domestically, their hopes for European glory remain alive and well.
The Blues are currently floundering – well, floundering by their lofty standards – in fifth in the Premier League table, behind the duo from Manchester and the other duo from North London. But after an uncharacteristically poor season for English teams in Europe, Chelsea now represent England’s only hope in Europe.
They very nearly joined the rest of the English contingent in exiting Europe early, but they staged a legendary comeback in the round of 16 against Napoli to book their seventh Champions League quarterfinal berth of the Roman Abramovich era. Chelsea went down 3-1 in the first leg in Naples, leaving them a lot to do in the return leg at Stamford Bridge. They would take a 2-0 lead in the second half, only for Gokhan Inler to turn the tide back in Napoli’s favor with time running out for Chelsea, but Frank Lampard forced extra time with a late penalty, and Branislav Ivanovic’s goal in the 105th minute made it a famous comeback and a famous win.
Chelsea stalwarts Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, and John Terry have received a lot of criticism this season and have been pinpointed by some as part of the reason why Andre Villas-Boas‘ tenure came to an end so quickly, but they all scored in the memorable win over Napoli, and they will all be key against Benfica. The Blues can ill afford to put themselves in a similar hole against Benfica, who are quite capable of keeping Abramovich from elusive European success for another year.
Like Chelsea, Benfica needed to overturn a deficit to win in the round of 16, as a 2-0 home win in the second leg overturned a 3-2 first-leg defeat and dispatched Zenit St. Petersburg 4-3 on aggregate. Benfica, who are locked in a tight three-way title race with FC Porto and Sporting Braga, have already gone up against elite English opposition this season and held their own. They were grouped with Manchester United in the group stage, and after drawing 1-1 at home on the first matchday, they registered a key 2-2 draw at Old Trafford on the penultimate matchday, with those results helping them lock up top spot in the group and pushing United into the Europa League. So, they won’t be fazed by this draw, even though Chelsea have a decided edge in the experience department, as this is Benfica’s first appearance in the Champions League quarterfinals since 2006, when they bowed out 2-0 on aggregate to eventual winners Barcelona.
There are some top young talents in the Benfica side, like midfielders Nicolas Gaitan and Javi Garcia, who have both been linked with Manchester United, but one of their older talents is the man that could cause the most danger. Paraguayan striker Oscar Cardozo has been scoring with regularity since joining Benfica in the summer of 2007, and it’s been more of the same this season. Cardozo has 18 league goals in 23 appearances, and he’s nearing 30 goals in all competitions. Cardozo scored in the 1-1 draw against Manchester United in September, and he has a good overall record against English opposition, having scored seven goals in only five appearances against English clubs. Chelsea had their hands full with a South American goal machine in the round of 16 in Napoli’s Edinson Cavani, and they’ll have their hands equally full with Cardozo this week and next week.
This isn’t the same Chelsea side that we’ve seen in years past, there’s no denying that. But they’re still capable of producing a classic performance from time to time, as they did in the second leg against Napoli. Their experience in these kinds of situations can’t be overlooked, and neither can the quality that they have, especially if – and it’s a big if – Fernando Torres can locate his confidence in front of goal, wherever it may be. But Benfica, led by their dangerous attack, have every reason to feel confident about their chances, and it won’t be a surprise at all if they send Chelsea crashing out.
The author of this article is Eddie Griffin.