Chelsea seek redemption in Europa League

Posted by Phil Lythell

Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty ImagesIt's another international road trip for Chelsea's Petr Cech and Rafa Benitez, shown arriving in Japan for the Club World Cup in December. Cech will be returning to his homeland when the Blues visit Prague in the Europa League.

This week, Chelsea return to European action, though not in the guise that was expected.

The club makes its debut in the revamped Europa League at Sparta Prague Thursday - the first reigning champions of Europe to do so - and they will be a scalp the Czech side will be eager to stick under their belts.

Ever since that historic night at the Allianz Arena last May, the Blues have had the crosshairs trained on them by every club they have faced, each eager to make their mark against the holders of the hallowed European Cup.

The Europa League certainly lacks the prestige of its elite older brother, though it is imperative that Chelsea do not take on the challenge with complacency, as a loss of focus will result in elimination against determined opponents however unfancied they might be.

Sparta might not be the force that they have been in recent years, though all guns will be pointing at Petr Cech and Co. when they take the field at the Stadion Letna.

It should not be forgotten - in fact, it is getting starker with every defeat - that the chances for the club to win silverware are rapidly running out. Chelsea began the 2012-13 season entered in the Champions League, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, FA Community Shield, FA Cup and Capital One Cup.

With most of those opportunities already blown, they now find themselves competing in just three But with the chances of winning the English title somewhere between zero and none , there remains just the Europa League and the FA Cup to potentially fill the silverware void.

While the financial and reputational rewards for qualifying for next season's Champions League naturally overshadow all other concerns, the opportunity for glory should still not be dismissed. Just ask any Arsenal supporter.

Of course, should it boil down to a straight choice between lifting the trophy in Amsterdam or renewing acquaintances with the continent's elite once again next campaign, the latter will always win. Yet although the Europa League is generally regarded by many English clubs as being an unwanted distraction on the path to larger pots of cash, the stature of Chelsea Football Club demands that Rafael Benitez and his players take the competition seriously and treat the rest of the clubs in the tournament with the respect they deserve.

The Europa League and its predecessors have been instrumental in raising the profile of its protagonists in the last decade and have both built and enhanced reputations. Two former Chelsea managers, Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas, both first achieved Europe-wide recognition by winning the competition with FC Porto, while Juande Ramos earned himself a lucrative contract at Tottenham off the back of claiming the trophy two years in a row with Sevilla.

Radamel Falcao is thought of by many as the best natural centre forward currently operating in world football and it was his feats in the last two editions of the Europa League that first put his name on the lips of football fans, most notably by scoring in successive finals.

Chelsea's global profile might already be sizable, but winning this trophy would only add to it. The culture and habit of winning should never be sniffed at, and though there might be bigger prizes out there, they are unattainable by Chelsea.

There is also a place in the history books at stake. Only three clubs have ever managed to claim all three major European trophies - European Cup/Champions League, UEFA Cup/Europa League and the now-defunct European Cup Winners Cup. Should Chelsea go all the way to the winners podium May 15, they will join such illustrious names as Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich as the only clubs to complete the full set and would also have the distinction of becoming the first English club to do so.

It might not be the Champions League, but there is still plenty for Chelsea and their fans to get excited about. And with the club facing what should be formality against Brentford in the FA Cup fourth round replay Sunday, there is no reason why Benitez should not field a strong side in Prague.

Forget the disappointment of not defending the trophy so hard won last season - the glass is still half full.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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