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"The most important game of my career" for Jorge Jesus, reward for a tough season for Rafael Benítez – SL Benfica and Chelsea FC go into the 2013 UEFA Europa League final with different mindsets but their goal is the same: victory.
On recent European pedigree there is only one team in it. Though shorn of Eden Hazard with a hamstring injury, Chelsea are European champions – for another week and a half at least – and aiming to be just the fourth side to complete the clean sweep of European Cup, UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and UEFA Cup/UEFA Europa League.
In Benítez, whose eventful Stamford Bridge tenure is almost at an end, they have a coach who has won it all – he could not resist an eve-of-game reference to the 2005 UEFA Champions League final. Benfica are no strangers to European success either; only you have to delve further back into the history books.
Yet there is one wonderful portent for the Portuguese outfit: in their last Amsterdam final, at the old Olympisch Stadium in 1962, a team spearheaded by Eusébio made light of Ferenc Puskás's first-half hat-trick to overwhelm Real Madrid CF 5-3. That sealed back-to-back European Cups though Benfica have lost all six of their major UEFA showpieces since. The Eagles landed, but have not taken off again since.
"Benfica created a name for themselves in the 1960s and 1970s," said Jesus. "It hasn't been the same in recent years but we've rediscovered our lustre, some of our old prestige. If we compare our recent European pedigree with Chelsea's then obviously Chelsea are favourites. But a final is a final and we at Benfica have a different way of looking at it."
The presence of Eusébio in the travelling party hints at that – at a club that like to look at the bigger picture. It is why Jesus is confident his players can lift themselves after the "heavy blow" of Saturday's last-gasp 2-1 defeat at FC Porto that in a flash switched the likely destination of the Liga trophy from Lisbon to Porto.
Jesus insists Benfica's weekend woe "will have no bearing on the Europa League final". Nor should the absence of the suspended Maxi Pereira – in André Almeida they have a ready-made replacement at right-back. Of more concern is how to deal with a Chelsea side he believes are stronger than the one "lucky" to beat Benfica in last season's UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. "They have better individuals, technically strong youngsters. They are a better team for them."
Playmaker Hazard's absence therefore weakens Chelsea, while John Terry is a major doubt with an ankle problem. Yet the Blues and their manager are nothing if not resilient. The end is in sight for Chelsea's marathon campaign – 66 games down, two to go (53/3 for Benfica) – and Wednesday will be their 15th match in 47 days. They are unbeaten in eight, Saturday's 2-1 win at Aston Villa FC all but ensuring a UEFA Champions League spot next term. When the going got tough, the tough got going.
"If we can do it, I'll be so proud because we've worked hard for this," said Benítez. "It's a credit to the players. Every day I go home after training thinking we've done our best. To be here now is proof of that. We've been playing two games a week for a while now. You have to deal with a dwindling squad, with injuries and suspensions. We've already done a good job; hopefully we can do even better."
The words lacked Jesus's power, but expect Benítez and Chelsea to pick themselves up for one last push.
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