In the latest instalment of a mini-series retelling a particular story from each of our triumphant European campaigns ahead of the return of Champions League football this month, we recall the Spanish influence that proved pivotal as we navigated the Europa League knockout rounds in 2013…
In the throes of a push for European silverware for the second successive season in 2012/13, the Spaniards at Stamford Bridge were playing a key role both on and off the pitch.
The Blues had been crowned European champions in Munich the previous May but, despite scoring more goals than any other side in the Champions League group stage, had been redirected to the Europa League knockout round after costly defeats at Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus.
Madrid-born Rafa Benitez was in the dugout following the departure of Roberto Di Matteo but it was on the field where our Spanish stars were having the greatest impact, none more so than Fernando Torres.
Our number nine had endured plenty of scrutiny in the first two years of his career in SW6, though he did have 14 goals to his name in all competitions before our first foray into the Europa League in February 2013, and it was the continental stage on which he thrived that season.
In fact, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski managed more goals than his nine in European competition in 2012/13.
While it was the Brazilian Oscar and the Belgian Eden Hazard who sealed our safe passage past Sparta Prague in the first knockout round, Torres came to the fore thereafter with six goals in seven games from the last-16 onwards. Benitez had been prophetic about his compatriot’s chances of rediscovering his goalscoring form following a difficult double-header for the striker against Sparta.
‘We have to create more opportunities and then he will score more goals,’ the interim head coach said after our 1-0 first-leg victory in the Czech capital.
‘If he continues working like today and playing like he did today, he will score goals. I’m convinced about that,’ Benitez added in the aftermath of the 1-1 draw in west London that set up a tie against Steaua Bucharest.
Demba Ba had effectively been employed as our domestic centre-forward due to his ineligibility in the Europa League, starting eight of the final 12 Premier League fixtures of the season, with Torres preferred to spearhead our quest for European glory.
He helped us fight back from a first-leg deficit against the Romanians, scoring the decisive goal under the lights at the Bridge before missing a late penalty. It was a microcosm of his one-step-forward, one-step back momentum during that period.
Yet there were positive strides made in the entertaining 5-4 aggregate victory over Rubin Kazan in the quarter-finals, the masked striker bagging three goals across the two-legged tie, one of which was assisted by Juan Mata, another Spaniard. His effort in Moscow was trademark Torres, released in behind by Frank Lampard and then finished with a majestic lob over the goalkeeper.
There were further goals at home to Basel in the last-four stage and then in Amsterdam in the final, assisted once again by Mata as the Spanish duo combined and Torres was quickest and strongest before rounding the goalkeeper to score from a narrowing angle.
Cesar Azpilicueta, the defender hailing from northern Spain, handed Benfica a lifeline after being penalised for handball in the box. It was the third penalty the right-back had conceded after previous indiscretions away against Rubin Kazan and Basel, though it mattered little when Branislav Ivanovic’s thumping header hit the back of the net in stoppage time to make us the first English club to win all three major European trophies.
The campaign had been restorative for Torres’s confidence and standing in the annals of Chelsea history, playing such a big part in placing us in the record books. Amsterdam sits alongside Baku, Munich, Athens and Stuttgart as cities in which we have savoured European glory, and there was more than a touch of Spanish inspiration along the way in 2013.
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