Given the self-consciously bouffant cosmo/metrosexuality of the erm #Blues, the first half of the Europa League Final was an extraordinarily trad clash of gifted foreigner (in red) v English plodder (in blue.) For the first 45, Chelsea may as have well played wearing white hankies on those over-coiffured barnets; Oscar looked nervously ordinary, Mata too absent to even be ordinary, Ivanovic like a clumsy, monkish David Webb and Ramires managed to be both infuriating and fascinatingly awful – all of this in a peculiarly Brit kindofaway. Meanwhile the impish swarm that was the opposition toyed around their tetchy, island-hamminess.
It occurred that perhaps this latest influx of Abramo-galacticos had been spending quality time in fe boozers rarnda Bridge, polishin’ ap on ther ‘istry or sammink as part of some Community Outreach Thing(?) How else to explain their total immersion in a rich, Shed-local and apparently transformational anthropological context? Suddenly they seemed fully qualified as authentically duff footballing Englishmen. Was this merely because the moment pressed? Perhaps – but be honest – my theory is much, much more fun.
Gaitan and co skipped and smooched around a statuesque Chelsea rearguard in a fashion that must surely have gladdened the heart of the Benfica bench… although looking at the whirling but-not-entirely-in-pleasure Manager… maybe not. Jorge Jesus – him with the extravagant locks – showing more irreligious passion than contentment. Unstill soul that he appears, surely the only cause he might have had for those constant explosions of vitriol was on the matter of the scoreline; his team having slaughtered Chelsea in terms of style points and creativity but failed (significantly) to notch. Nil nil at the half flattered Benitez’s crew. He then, must have been the one to have ‘had words’.
After the break it became a contest. The embarrassment of riches and touches for Benfica was more meaningfully challenged by Lampard and Ramires, despite the latter’s weirdly off-key performance. The near humbling fluency of the reds, so characteristic of the early stages, slipped, as what I imagine to be a Benitez-driven gathering of blue force responded. There were few now, of those moments when you thought Benfica would dismiss Chelsea entirely through a beautifully constructed goal. Arguably less football broke out, in fact. You could almost feel Gaitan, in particular, sweating over those painfully lame misses from earlier in the match – chances which had they been converted might have tipped the reported balance over from ‘deserving winners’ into ‘emphatic’. Despite real quality from the jinking/interlinking Salvio, Cardozo, Salvio, Gaitan, Benfica did lack that killer touch, meaning ultimately… ’twas not to be.
In a twisted world it’s a dead cert that the most maligned striker in the history of the universe is gonna stick one on his critics on an ‘occasion’ like this. And so it nearly was; meaning Torres if not absolutely sticking one then politely labelled a reminder and pressed it quietly against the fridge. Or somewhere. Fernando – whom I too have abused and whom I too still believe to be a pale shadow – threw off some of those monkey-albatross things and firstly led the line with something close to competence and indeed threat and secondly… scored.
Fittingly perhaps, it was a bit of a Sunday League, end-to-end in eight seconds flat job; except the finish, which flickered between composed and stylish, even. Cech lobbed the ball out smartly to Lampard, who pinged it through for the 50 Million Smackers Man to run onto. Torres extended and bypassed both the last defender and the sprawling keeper – going worryingly wide for a split second – before clamly slotting. Four years ago we would all have said it was class. Probably, it still was.
Benfica did respond but things were scrappy now rather than entertainingly ding-dong. Curmudgeonly barges and slightly cynical tumbles and inelegant, incomplete exchanges. Luisao baulking or lunging, Ivanovic clumping, Luiz still not hitting a meaningful pass. There was tension, still, in the play.
A clumsy handball from Azpilicueta needlessly gifted Benfica a direct route back into the game – Cardozo despatching the penno. Significantly, however, the reds control had ebbed away and the staccato nature of things was as least as likely to be punctuated with (for example) two stunning strikes from Lampard as it was with anything orgasmic from those sexy-footballing Europeans. Oscar and Mata still made only fleeting contributions, but the feeling grew that Chelsea’s resolve – or their physicality? – might be enough, without recourse to what might generally be termed ‘much fooball’.
It may therefore only be right to point out that a certain Fat Spanish Waiter (sorry Rafa!) is entitled to take some credit for the distinct improvement in attitude, application and consequently fortunes of the Chelsea side post the break. They dug in and held – even whilst failing to find their classier gears – and suddenly… bingo.
We’re in the last minute and there’s a corner which Mata floats towards the back stick. Ivanovic – who had been inconsistent with his defensive work all night (and was yet to offer Benfica one last golden opportunity, which fortunately for him, they spurned) drifted then looped back to connect with a firmly steered header. Time stands still… as does the keeper… and the ball arcs into the top corner. Cue ecstasy, cue disbelief. Chelsea have won their second European trophy in a year or so… and Benfica – remember them, who looked different class in the first period? – have now lost seven (repeat SEVEN) on the bounce, apparently.
Re-winding, it may be that the most remarkable thing about the game (save it’s extraordinary climax) was this imperfect correlation between say… John Terryness and David Luizness – or at least the David Luiz that looked kinda British, last night. And him (and Chelsea) being bamboozled by ‘technically gifted’ types for much of the game.
For a zillion years foreigners have done this carousel-of-lovely-touches thing to our lot but given that this 2013 version of ‘us’ is more likely to have wailed its first in Portuguese rather than cockney, how could a team containing almost no Englishmen represent the White Cliffs and stuff so stoutly? Could we maybe credit/blame Benitez for that too? And where does this leave the concept ‘us?’ And hang on… was that Jesus bloke like… on something, anyway?
In the extremely wonderful The Big Lebowski, the central character gets through by being a combination of stoned, stoic and mellow ma’an. It is said that ‘the Dude abides’. As he waddles off onto another sunset, another box ticked, perhaps we should be offering a little congratulation to Signor Benitez… who likewise, I suspect, will persist… nay thrive?