The Europa League is an interesting beast. Primarily because it’s not a beast at all. For much of the developed world (at least in terms of football), it ranks somewhere below the Reserves and above the U-12s in importance. The origins of this sad state of affairs are very much open to debate and undoubtedly involve UEFA, the growth of national leagues and, ultimately, money. I’m not an expert of this particular (or any other, for that matter) part of our modern footballing history, so I’ll refrain from speculating any further. What I do know is that I remember a time, and I’m still quite young, when the UEFA Cup meant something. It meant a lot, actually. And don’t forget the Cup Winners’ Cup. European football was diverse, competitive and didn’t involve the dreaded Thursday nights. The teams that were fighting for the aforementioned trophies weren’t second-rate obscure mid-table sides. They just happened to be less fortunate in their respective leagues the year before, but were still proper teams, hungry for European glory, which back then, in the days when the Champions League wasn’t the monopoly it now is, meant blood, sweat and prestige. I can still very much remember those UEFA Cup winners (and runners-up, and some really great matches), while I can’t tell you who triumphed in the last Europa League if I had a gun to my head. Right now the tournament is nothing more than a subject of jokes from rival fans. And the Blues are in it this year, if only to remind dear old Paulo Ferreira what a football pitch outside of Cobham looks like.
However, I believe that here and now, for Chelsea, this is an important endeavour for a very symbolic but nonetheless tangible reason. The glory of May 2012 vanished into thin air so fast that at the moment it’s nothing more than bland satire. There are few things more embarrassing than trying so hard, defying so many odds, and a couple of months later letting it go to waste. I didn’t expect us to win the damn thing two years running, mind you, but the way we crashed out, and the fact that it was us, speaks volumes to our detractors. What I mean is, it’s alright for Barcelona, Bayern, Milan and the like to suffer such an unfortunate chain of events and fail to pass the group stage. For us, the season immediately following our Champions League victory, it’s a nightmare. No one believed we could do it. And after we’d done it, they were constantly nagging on and on about anti-football, luck and such bullshit. They can shut up and we can pretend not to care, but the fact we couldn’t even reach the knockout round kind of adds weight to this mode of thinking. I, personally, do not want one of the fondest memories in my life to be put down to sheer luck and anti-football. Because it wasn’t. The boys were heroes. That victory was supposed to spark the beginning of something bigger for Chelsea FC. It was supposed to become a new foundation. It was supposed to make us legit on this overrated, corrupt European scale. Instead it will be remembered as a fluke, a sun spark in between Barcelona’s and whoever else’s golden dominance. Which isn’t true, but when was the last time history cared about what’s true and what’s a load of bollocks?
Unless Chelsea wins the Europa League. Not for the open-top bus celebration, not to make us cry in joy, not to pull the next Eden Hazard out of the greasy palms of Manchester City and their less financially fortunate neighbours at the last minute. Just for one thing: closure. In other words, May 2012 cannot have ended in Turin or in Donetsk the following autumn. Drogba’s performance deserves so much more. And the best Lamps and Terry (and Rafa, oh yes) can give him now is this worthless peace of silverware that only for Chelsea and only this year shouldn’t be so worthless. Get to the final, grab a couple of goals and just wrap it up. Go home, watch some sitcoms or something. But deep down inside feel just a little bit warmer. Because no matter how UEFA corrupts and destroys their tournaments, a European cup is still, in the end, a European cup (make it two with the Super Cup).
And I’m happy to say that after Chelsea’s trip to Moscow (which was supposed to be Kazan, but Rubin screwed up their UEFA application and ended up having to play, effectively, on neutral ground, with Moscow’s Chelsea fans cheering the opposition on*), the lads are still on course to the final in… Amsterdam, I think?
As for the match, I took the liberty to not write a proper match report precisely because I feel that either you’ve watched the game or you don’t really care enough (rightfully) to know all the little details. We have Man City looming and, generally, better things to do. For lack of a better word, I’d like to underline the overall attitude to this tournament by not writing a lot about the match.
Well, as I said, the game was somewhat unremarkable, had it not been for Torres’s fantastic lob (on the fifth minute) and Moses’s slick finish (on the 55th minute) that sealed Rubin’s fate despite their heroic effort (aided by some very dodgy defending, probably attributable to no one in a blue shirt caring enough by that point) to score three goals and save their quite impeccable European reputation. I’ll repeat myself and mention that the Europa League is still a very big deal for Eastern European clubs. And Rubin are no pushovers. They didn’t play as well as they normally can, but we should not disregard the overall outcome of the tie. Chelsea had to do well to pass Rubin. And for all the hate that Rafa attracts, the last few weeks he seems to be getting it mostly right, which is his main strength. Cold and calculated performances, whereby even when playing like shit, we can still grind out those results. And let’s be honest, at this point in the season, there’s probably nothing more that we could reasonably ask for. An honorable mention, I feel, should go to young Ake who looked quite good in the difficult to master holding midfielder/anchorman role.
*They didn’t want to play in Kazan in autumn (because it’s freezing and they have a proper grass pitch), and a club is only allowed to declare two stadiums to UEFA, so they quite logically declared Luzhniki with its notorious plastic pitch (sadly the only way to have a decent surface to play on when it’s minus fucking 20) and a stadium in the south of Russia (can’t be bothered to look up which, sorry) where it’s perpetual summer and bikini time. One thing they didn’t quite examine well was the fact that re-declaring a stadium (say, after the group stage, like clubs do with players in January) is not allowed. So when it became possible to play in Kazan, they couldn’t replace Luzhniki in UEFA’s list. For which they attracted a lot of flack from the Russian media and some fans. But it’s over now.
Our lineup: Cech; Azpi, JT, Crazy David, Ferreira; Rami, Ake; Benayoun, Lamps, Moses; Torres.
Their lineup: Ryzhikov; Kuzmin, Marcano, Navas, Ansaldi; Karadeniz, Orbaiz, Natkho, Kasaev; Eremenko, Rondon.
The Guardian, Dominic Fifield: “Rafael Benítez had made a point of warning his players against complacency in the buildup to this contest but, clearly, that message did not entirely sink in. Chelsea secured their passage into a Europa League semi-final here at Rubin Kazan’s expense but, amid swathes of empty seats in this vast Moscow arena, they were beaten on the night with their fragility causing the interim manager palpitations on the touchline. Manchester City await in the FA Cup at Wembley on Sunday and, on this evidence, they will hardly be quaking in their boots.”
The Daily Telegraph, Jeremy Wilson: “The contrast with Chelsea’s previous competitive visit to Moscow could not have been more stark but John Terry will probably still be happy if he never set foot inside the Luzhniki Stadium again. Where there was tears, high drama and ultimately heartbreak when Chelsea lost the Champions League final in Moscow five years ago, this was an evening of kamikaze defending amid what was otherwise serene progress to the semi-finals of the Europa League.”
The Independent, Simon Johnson: “Chelsea should have cruised through to the last four after going to Moscow with a two-goal advantage and taking the lead twice during the second leg. However, they ended up greeting the final whistle with a huge sigh of relief after conceding three goals in a frantic second half.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “Chelsea are into the Europa League semi-finals despite being narrowly beaten in Russia. An early goal should have made things comfortable, but a second-half fight back from Rubin made for a harder night’s work than many would have predicted when Fernando Torres put us in front after four minutes.”