Chelsea aim to end tough season on a high in Europa final

Posted by Phil Lythell

When Chelsea began the 2012-13 season, one of the main objectives was to once again contest a major European final in May. Their eyes were firmly fixed on becoming the first club to retain the Champions League title, but tumultuous circumstances dictated that it would be the Europa League that the Blues would be fighting for 12 months after that glorious night in Bavaria.

At the time of Chelsea's exit from the Champions League group stages, there was little consolation in knowing that the club would still be continuing their pan-continental competition. Refreshingly, that attitude has changed in the intervening months and the players and fans have both embraced the much-maligned junior brother to UEFA's flagship tournament.

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The benchmark for success at Chelsea is trophies, and it was instructive to hear Frank Lampard state, in the wake of his record-breaking performance at Villa Park on Saturday, that Chelsea would not be planning any celebrations for securing a top-four finish unlike their rivals in North London. The modern club is all about winning silverware and for this campaign to be called a success then the trinket formerly known as the UEFA Cup needs to be lifted Wednesday in the Amsterdam Arena.

As well as for the players, victory in the final against Benfica is a key target for Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has received all sorts of criticism and abuse during his time at Stamford Bridge -- much of it warranted, some of it excessive -- and he will be desperate to leave SW6 having added another European trophy to his CV. It would not be enough to make the fans warm to him, though perhaps their opinions might soften ever so slightly. Not that Benitez seems particularly bothered by supporters' viewpoints. At present, his motivation is all about attracting the attention of potential employers and nothing does that better than the glint of polished silver with your team's name freshly engraved upon it.

Preparations for this match could not have been better for Chelsea. A tough trio of fixtures against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa yielded an impressive, if heart-stopping, seven points that has virtually guaranteed a return to Europe's elite next season. While none of the matches featured a full 90-minute performance of absolute quality from the Blues, they all showcased glimpses of the quality and desire that is required to get the proper results.

The main fear is that some players might be running on empty at the end of what has been a draining campaign of unprecedented proportions. Though, conversely, having got the main job done in the league, the squad should be able to approach Wednesday with a little more focus without any extraneous thoughts about forthcoming fixtures preoccupying their minds.

That alleviation of pressure is in stark contrast to Benfica's buildup to the clash in Holland's cultural capital. The Portuguese side suffered a significant body blow at the weekend when they suffered an injury-time defeat -- their first of their entire league campaign -- to FC Porto.

That result meant they relinquished top spot to their archrivals and sit one point behind in second place with only one round remaining. They will be reluctant to commit every ounce of their energies to striving for victory Wednesday with such a pivotal weekend on the horizon and the huge deflation in morale caused by that painful loss could easily have an adverse affect on their mentality when they take the field against the Blues.

Unlike last year's Champions League final, Chelsea will not be hampered by players missing because of suspension. Unfortunately, it looks as if there will be at least one key player forced to sit it out through injury after Eden Hazard tweaked a hamstring against Aston Villa. Rumours have abounded on social media that the mesmerising Belgian will be fit enough to play, though that is surely wishful thinking at best, mischief-making at worst.

Any affliction to that muscle, however minor, generally requires a minimum of two weeks' rest and it is difficult to see Chelsea asking him to play through the pain and risk exacerbating the kind of injury that can end up blighting a whole career. It will be a tremendous loss not to be able to call upon Hazard's extraordinary talents as he has lit up the team over the past couple of months, though Chelsea were dealt a far more difficult hand against Bayern Munich last May and came through the other side with the trophy in their grasp.

The omens aren't all good, though. Chelsea have had a horrid time of things in the latter stages of tournaments this season, with elimination in the semifinals of two domestic cup competitions to go with defeat in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and the Community Shield. Add to that the club's impressive group of youngsters falling at the final hurdle in both the NextGen Series and the FA Youth Cup, and it has been a heartbreaking period for the Blues as far as silverware goes.

But trends do not last forever and should Chelsea treat the Europa final with the determination and respect that the occasion deserves, then there is every chance that Amsterdam can be added to Athens, Stockholm and Munich in the ever-growing list of cities in which the club has won a major European trophy.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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