Monday, 6 May 2013

Chelsea 3 FC Basle 1

Chelsea win 5-2 on aggregate

With about five minutes left, the magnificent Basle fans massed to my left went for a final flourish. Their side were well out of contention; Chelsea had suffered a slight panic but prevailed and were moments away from a second European final in the space of 12 months. They didn’t care about such details.

The Swiss, that race that loves peace, efficiency and quaint things, cast off all national stereotype and went absolutely bonkers. A line of smoke flares crackled into life along the front of the upper tier, sending think plumes of red fire and smoke drifting over the pitch. 

A giant royal blue and red banner was unfurled from nowhere and stretched backwards until it covered the entire section. Everyone jumped up and down and roared out a brooding club anthem in gruff German. 

“Inferno” the black-lettered banner at the front of the chaos read. Too true. 

All night the Basle fans had been excellent, but it wasn’t to be their time. There would be no Swiss side in a European final for the first time, the natural order had been restored.

If Chelsea start enjoying their season even more, their fans might even find forgiveness for Rafa Benitez. The mood at Stamford Bridge has certainly chilled since that mutinous night I was last here for a senior game, when classy Swansea put one hand on the Capital One Cup. 

There were less calls for Di Matteo to be reinstated and less hate for Fernando Torres, who seems to excel in the Europa League. It may not be where Chelsea want to be, but it’s a decent imitation of the real thing. There were still calls for Jose Mourinho but now a giddy sense that he is actually coming to rescue them. 

If Benitez wins the Europa League in Amsterdam on the 15th, and if he delivers Champions League football again next season, then surely he has done everything that was expected of him as an ‘interim‘ manager. It’s a key word and it’s been a burden for him, but ‘interim‘ suggests a holding of the fort. The cavalry will come from Madrid soon. Will Benitez be applauded or thanked for his efforts? Doubtful. 

I had a strange feeling that tickets might come up for this second leg of the semi-final. If there’s one competition that suffers from an identity crisis and where tickets literally have to be given away, it’s this one. Sure enough, I left the office at five with three hospitality tickets in my pocket and plans for the evening redrawn. 

They were good seats too, certainly much better than my last paying visit to the Bridge, for that Swansea semi, when I found it very difficult to see anything beneath the low sloping roof of the Matthew Harding. 

There were plenty of corporates around me as you might expect, including many people who frankly wouldn’t know a football if it struck them in the face, but there was at least enough Basle fans in there so I could support them. 

One of the few things about Chelsea I like is Frank Lampard, and he came within a whisker of equalling Bobby Tambling’s long-standing club goalscoring record when striking the post on eight minutes. Torres too, wearing his Lone Ranger mask, was lively and forced a good save from goalkeeper Yann Sommer early on. 

Basle were more inhibited than in their recent visit to Tottenham, but they carried a discernible threat on the break, and the tie was blown wide open on the stroke of half-time when Mohamed Salah, probably their best player, finished well from a Valentin Stocker pass. 

The mood in the bar (non-complimentary) was one of shock with the aggregate scores now levelled. But many of them hadn’t finished their pints of Sangha and ambled back to their padded seats when Chelsea hit the front. 

First Torres turned in a jammy goal when Sommer couldn’t hang on to Lampard’s drive. The Spaniard now has 21 goals for the season, but you suspect unless he scores more in the region of 55, he’s never going to be fully accepted.

Moments later, Victor Moses completed the quick turnaround and Chelsea were suddenly coasting over to Holland. The goal that sealed it was in itself worth coming along for - David Luiz took in a short pass from Lampard and, with space opening up before him, curled a superlative shot into the top corner from about 30 yards. 

It was such a nonchalant strike and one that the Brazilian backed himself to score despite the distance and the fact he’s technically a defender. Somehow I don’t think he’ll be playing outside of the midfield very much from now on. 

The last half-hour was academic and, who would have thought it, but Benitez’s Chelsea might have a successful season after all. 

Next Match: With work commitments and a two-week holiday in America coming up, opportunities will be limited so could well be the England v Ireland match at Wembley at the end of May.