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May 15, 2013

Rafa finally calls the tune

There are but 10 days left for Chelsea fans to sing their favourite refrain.

"We know what we are, we know what we are, champions of Europe, we know what we are," was conceived in the small hours of a Munich morning a year ago this Sunday. They will need a new song now and even the ever-versatile "Sloop John B" surely cannot scan "Europa League" into its tune.

• Europa League final gallery Photo Gallery
• Kundert: What now for Benfica?
• Delaney: Rafa style key to title
• Lampard hopeful over new deal

"One team in Europe" might have to suffice in the streets of Amsterdam - Chelsea have become England's continental conquistadors. Perhaps they can find it in their hearts to sing for Rafa Benitez. OK, fat chance, but he deserves plaudits by making it eighth-time lucky in their 68th game of the season. Jose Mourinho is left with something more than his previous achievements at Chelsea to live up to.

"I'm proud," said Benitez. "It was not easy, we have been talking about this all the time so I am really pleased, really proud." Only the hardest of hearts would begrudge him his moment of redemptive glory.

An apparition from football's past set Chelsea on their way. The notion of Fernando Torres running the length of a half, outpacing defenders, rounding the keeper and shooting with calm was removed from possibility a significant while ago. Among the few positives that Chelsea fans could see in Benitez's appointment was a previously productive relationship between the Spanish pair, though in truth, most had probably given up on Torres by then. This excellent goal reminded of why he has so often disappointed.

While Oscar Cardozo slotted Benfica's equaliser from the penalty spot, Torres squatted, looking toward the net he had just scored in. The reaction of the Chelsea fans told him all he needed to know; the glory that night would not be wholly his. Cesar Azpilicueta's unfortunate handball had let Benfica back in. It was left to Branislav Ivanovic, denied by suspension of playing in Munich a year ago, to supply Chelsea with the looping header which made a delayed arrival beyond the Benfica goal line.

Victory was achieved somewhat scruffily, but threadbare resources dictated that necessity. A glance at the subs bench suggested why Chelsea never went for broke. Only perhaps Victor Moses might have increased their quality. Paulo Ferreira, the great survivor, has another medal to his name.

Eden Hazard looked uncomfortable in his club suit. Chelsea were equally uncomfortable without him. John Terry cut a sorry dash when shuffling from the team coach into the stadium. His limp was noticeably more pronounced than in training the night before. He had barely lasted 15 minutes in the morning's light session. As in Munich a year previously, Chelsea's Cinderella man had missed out on the ball. He still played his part in the celebrations, of course, and there was a hint of wrestle between him and Frank Lampard as the trophy was lifted. This, less even than Munich, was never Terry's night.

Benitez had a choice of either Victor Moses or the best player in the club's history. Even unsentimental Rafa appreciated that it was better to turn to the history man. Lampard's presence allowed Ramires to play in his favoured hard-running position from the right flank. At times, it was a singular outlet. Torres barely featured until his goal.

Whispers of a new contract finally being offered to Lampard are rife, and confirmation is expected imminently. It will be for just one more year, and unlike Didier Drogba, he is happy with such a short tenure. Chelsea, the club of constant change, need their hardy perennial around.

"We're getting there, we haven't completely sat down on it but the club have been brilliant, it looks good," confirmed Lampard.

He led by example. After he was denied a near-certain winner when a 25-yard dipper was unleashed with but two minutes left on the clock, it looked as if extra time would now be testing out his near-35-year-old legs.

The next generation was struggling to find its feet. While it is sometimes difficult to remember that Juan Mata is still to complete his second season as a Blue, the rest of the relative newcomers suffered mixed fortunes. Oscar, playing in Hazard's usual position, was able to show off his repertoire for only the briefest of glimpses. While Azpilicueta has improved as the season has gone on, the penalty for the handball was not his sole error.

David Luiz failed to get a central midfield grip against his old teammates. It took until the 22nd minute for Chelsea to enjoy their first period of calm possession. It is often the Benitez way. His teams have never gone straight from the gun. The retention of shape, the conserving of energy, are the first objectives. Oscar's shot wide in the 27th minute signalled a turning of the tide; Benfica's previous slickness had gone stodgy. Swift attacking moves kept coming unstuck when one pass too many was played. Their clear fear of responsibility eventually played into Chelsea's hands.

Ashley Cole joined Petr Cech and Lampard in a trio of survivors from two previous European finals, and while he was not quite as heroic as against Bayern Munich, his block on a Gaitan shot set the tone for a night of often last-ditch defending. The spirit of the Allianz Arena was being summoned. Chelsea had been dominated only to ride out a storm. Artur's miraculous change of both hand and direction to deflect away a trademark Lampard drive seven minutes before the break marked a further foothold gained.

Eventually, the Benitez safety catch was released, first when Mata's hopeful flick set Torres on his way, and then in pushing for a winner when extra time was mere seconds away. The moment had been seized, the cup won.

Benitez, his face wreathed in a broad smile, glad-handing anyone in sight after the match, had his kiss-off moment. As he held aloft the trophy, he even received applause from Chelsea fans behind the goal.

"I was just enjoying myself with the trophy. Everybody was happy and I was happy too," Benitez said. "We won the final and the job is done."

He knows what he is. A trophy winner, he knows what he is.

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