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UEFA Europa League

Never mind the middle, let's look to happy ending, says Frank Lampard

The glossy brochure handed out at the door of the Amsterdam ArenA bore the same slogan that has been emblazoned across some of the more prominent bridges on the city's canal ring.

"Discover The Excitement" is the message Uefa is trying to push for the Europa League and for Chelsea that certainly beats the old "Thursday night, Channel 5" mantra that accompanied their appearances in earlier rounds of this competition.

The Europa League might seem like a downgrade on the trophy they won in Munich a year ago but it does represents a chance to end a chaotic season on a high and, even if it is only for 10 days, there is the opportunity to become the first team to hold both of Uefa's biggest club prizes simultaneously.

The alternative is barely worth thinking about after the various ordeals Chelsea have experienced in the Champions League, the Club World Cup, the Super Cup, the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Capital One Cup and the Community Shield. To lose against Benfica would leave Chelsea the subject of a pub-quiz question: name the only English side to play in eight different competitions in a single season and win none?

It has been a turbulent season, to say the least, but Frank Lampard was right when he said it would be defined by what happens in this final rather than the upheaval that preceded it. "We're all used to things happening at this club in the middle of the season," he said. "What's important is what happens at the end of it. We want to win it so we can say we've won it, as simple as that." And, he might have added, there will be no asterisk in the record books to indicate it loses value on the basis many Chelsea fans cannot bring themselves to like the man picking the team.

Rafael Benítez certainly did not appreciate being asked whether he should have apologised to the club's supporters after the comments – some genuine, others exaggerated and some totally fictitious – that were attached to him when he was Liverpool manager. "Why?" he shot back. "For what?"

He could have gone further, but resisted the temptation. One of Benítez's qualities this season has been his ability to block out the bad feeling, at least for the most part, and fully focus on the matches. His attention was more with the fact he will have to do without Eden Hazard after the expected confirmation that the Belgian's hamstring injury will keep him out.

John Terry, nursing a sprained ankle, would probably not have started anyway, but Hazard's absence represents a considerable setback. "To lose a player for a final is always bad, no matter who it is, but it's obvious in this case," Benítez said. "Hazard was playing well and he can make the difference in games."

Benfica certainly represent difficult opponents, as Newcastle can testify to from the quarter-finals. What state of mind they will be in is another matter after losing to Porto last weekend and potentially surrendering the Portuguese championship. Yet Jorge Jesus has assembled a quick-moving team with great mobility and passing qualities. They have a striker, Óscar Cardozo, who has 31 goals this season and Nemanja Matic is a far more distinguished player now than in his short stint at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea, however, can be encouraged by the fact that when the two sides met in the Champions League last season they won 1-0 at Estádio da Luz followed by a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge. Yet they will also remember how close it was to going horribly wrong. Benfica were on top in the second leg for long spells and even with 10 men they created something close to panic when they made it 1-1 with a Javi García goal after 85 minutes. They had chances to score a second and decisive away goal before Raul Meireles soothed Chelsea's nerves with a late winner.

There is also the fact that this will be Chelsea's 68th game of a long, demanding season whereas their opponents have played only 49. "For six months we have been playing two games, at least, a week," Benítez said. "Imagine any club in the world having to do that. It would be difficult for anyone to progress. Sixty-eight games."

He makes the point because it reinforces his view that "it was not an easy situation" joining a club where the supporters did not want him, but that they had "managed well – and I think people realise that now".

Ideally, he said, he would like to stay in England. "If not, I will go abroad … maybe a top side with money, where you can buy players and challenge for trophies." One certainty is that it will help if he can win his third European trophy in nine years.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Taylor in Amsterdam, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th May 2013 23.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Ben Sutherland

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