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Ivanovic heads Chelsea to glory in final Benitez vindication

They just never give up. Chelsea just keep on fighting.

Just as thoughts were turning to extra-time last night, Branislav Ivanovic, who missed last year's Champions League final suspended, settled this Europa League final with a glorious header that looped through the air, watched by thousands of Chelsea fans who went totally crazy as it fell into the back of the net.

As the ball went in, Rafael Benitez turned away with a clenched fist and then a smile. Moments later, at the final whistle, Chelsea really got the party started. The injured John Terry hobbled on, wearing his full strip, and the celebrations intensified.

This was another chance to enhance that history. It was only the Europa League, only the Champions League's unassuming younger sibling but it was still a trophy, still worth fighting for. The early stages had not been encouraging for Chelsea. Benfica started far the better, putting together slick, rolling moves, the ball speeding between receptive feet and perceptive minds.

The pitch looked over-watered, almost as if designed for the pre-match tulip parade rather than a football final. Some players slipped but it certainly assisted Benfica's passing style, creating opportunities. Early on, Oscar Cardozo muscled his way in front of Gary Cahill to head over.

Duels swiftly developed. Oscar took a look at Benfica's right-back, Andre Almeida, and had a few darts at him. Eduardo Salvio tried to wriggle his way past Ashley Cole. Nemanja Matic, formerly of Chelsea, was dropping back to keep an eye on Juan Mata, covering more 6.1km in the first period, the most of all involved in a half but short on delivery.

Even when Chelsea broke, Frank Lampard driving a long ball to Ramires on the right, Ezequiel Garay covered superbly. With Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini and Eusebio looking on, the final was not quite a game fit for footballing kings.

Cole blocked a Cardozo shot. Nicolas Gaitan wafted an effort over. Chelsea were placed under unnecessary pressure because of their laxness in midfield. David Luiz lost the ball. Oscar was cautioned for tugging back Enzo Perez. Only the agility of Lampard rescued Chelsea, the midfielder hooking the ball clear.

leadership

This was the sort of near-siege where Chelsea needed John Terry's leadership, organising, exhorting and making blocks. He was injured, continuing his bad personal luck in European finals.

Yet Chelsea are nothing if not resilient. They broke out again. Ramires found Oscar but his shot failed to trouble Artur. In the Benfica dug-out, Jorge Jesus bounced around like a shaggy-haired Paolo Di Canio, living every moment.

Chelsea enjoyed the best opportunity of the half. Lampard let fly with one of his 20-yard specials. Artur was going to his right, following the path of the ball which suddenly, mischeviously moved away like a school urchin escaping a teacher in the playground. Lampard's shot was now speeding to Artur's left.

But even though he was wrong-footed, the 'keeper did brilliantly to stretch out a hand and push the ball over.

The second half immediately showed a quickening of tempo, goals soon arriving. Cesar Azpilicueta did well to clear as Rodrigo lurked. Cardozo was fractionally offside when heading in Gaitan's cross. Then Chelsea made that telling break just before the hour. Then Torres reminded everyone of his enduring class. It came from a long Petr Cech clearance, misread by Garay, gifting Torres a run at goal.

This was the Torres of old. He sped past Luisao, who slipped and tried to ankle-tap him. Torres then feinted to go left, before going right. Artur, despairingly, dived at Torres' feet, forcing Chelsea's No 9 wide but he showed accuracy and composure to sweep from a tightening angle into the net.

The wave of celebration ripping through the Chelsea fans lasted only nine minutes. Down the other end, Azpilicueta waved his hand towards a header from Salvio and the Dutch referee, Bjorn Kuipers, pointed to the spot. Cardozo stayed calm, powering the ball past Cech.

More spaces soon appeared in Chelsea's defence. Cardozo was given far too much room in front of goal and connected powerfully with the ball left-footed. Only Cech's reflexes saved Chelsea, the 'keeper pushing the ball over. Jardel then headed over. Yet Chelsea still threatened on the break.

After some clever work by Mata, Ramires accelerated through, powering down the inside-right channel. Just as the Brazilian was about to shoot, Luisao slid in to make a vital block. Such was the quality of the interception, and importance, that Luisao permitted himself some fist-pumping celebrations.

After 87 minutes, the perfect script was almost written. Mata did well to work the ball back to Lampard. The England international, who is close to signing a new one-year contract at the Bridge, struck the ball so sweetly and it cleared the leaping Artur before smacking into the crossbar.

Extra-time seemed inevitable. But then came another Mata corner. Then came Ivanovic. Chelsea never give up. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent