After a turbulent season, history beckons for Chelsea in Wednesday’s Europa League final in Amsterdam, where they will meet a Benfica team reeling from a devastating domestic defeat by arch rivals Porto.
The premature end to Chelsea’s Champions League defence had threatened to leave a cloud over their entire campaign.
Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal as manager created a negative atmosphere that only got worse when the unpopular Rafael Benitez was appointed as his interim successor, but now, salvation is in sight.
Saturday’s 2-1 win at Aston Villa essentially secured the club’s place in next season’s Champions League, and victory over Benfica would turn an unhappy campaign into one etched in Chelsea folklore.
The all-German Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund on May 25 means Chelsea’s fans will not be able to crow that they are the champions of Europe for much longer.
But if they overcome Benfica, they will become the first club to hold both European titles at the same time.
They are also bidding to become only the fourth team to have won the Champions League, the Europa League and the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup — which they won in 1971 and 1998 — after Bayern, Juventus and Ajax.
Chelsea beat Benfica in the quarter-finals en route to last season’s Champions League triumph, but Spanish midfielder Juan Mata remains wary of Jorge Jesus’s side.
“We’re playing against Benfica, a historic team in Europe that will be very tough to beat, as we saw last season in the Champions League,” he wrote on his personal blog on Monday.
Amsterdam was the scene of Benfica’s second European Cup triumph, in 1962, but it remains the last venue where they have tasted success in a European final.
There have been six painful defeats since then, although the most recent was 23 years ago, when they lost 1-0 to AC Milan in the final of the 1990 European Cup.
There was fresh heartache on Saturday, when a stoppage-time goal gave Porto a 2-1 win over their closest rivals that took them to the brink of the Primeira Liga title.
Benfica coach Jesus fell to his knees in disbelief as a low shot by Porto substitute Kelvin crept in at Estadio do Dragao, and he admitted it would be a challenge to rouse his players.
“It’s a difficult moment for us, because on Wednesday we’ve got a final and this loss has knocked us back,” he said.
Nonetheless, with 51 years having now passed since Benfica’s last continental title, there is no shortage of motivation.
“Benfica are always under pressure when they play and we know that in every competition we take part in, the aim is to get to the final and win,” he told uefa.com.
“I was born in ’54, but I know the history of the club because I have read about it and it is illustrated in photos at the training ground.”
At Chelsea, the three-year tenure of former coach Jose Mourinho left a strong Portuguese connection.
The two Portuguese players in the current squad — Paulo Ferreira and Henrique Hilario — are unlikely to feature in Amsterdam, but Brazilians Ramires and David Luiz both joined the club from Benfica.
Mourinho’s shadow looms large over Benitez, amid reports he is poised to return to the club from Real Madrid, but the Spaniard has history of his own to pursue.
Having won the competition with Valencia in 2004, he could become only the second coach — after Giovanni Trapattoni — to win the Europa League with two different clubs.
Benitez has concerns over captain John Terry and Eden Hazard, both of whom sustained injuries at Villa Park.
Terry sat out last season’s Champions League coronation due to suspension and fellow Chelsea stalwart Frank Lampard says it would be a bitter blow for him to miss another major chapter in the club’s history.
“I’m gutted for him because I know what it meant to him to miss last season’s final, even though he turned up and supported the team brilliantly,” Lampard said.
“Whatever we do, it’s as a club, and as long as John’s here, he’s part of it.”
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