When I tell people that “bittersweet” is one of my favourite words, I am met with quizzical looks. “What the hell does that even mean?” they ask. Well, if there ever was a time when football was bittersweet, it had to be Wednesday night. Chelsea trounced Danish minnows Nordsjælland at Stamford Bridge 6-1 (there was no way even Benitez could screw this one up), yet the result proved ultimately fruitless as the club’s fate was in Shakhtar Donetsk’s hands. The London team needed the Ukrainians to beat Juventus at the Donbass Arena so that they could progress into the knockout stages of the Champions League. The opposite happened, meaning that the thrashing of Nordsjælland was in vain and Chelsea can now look forward to the very thing that Ashley Cole once famously mocked Roberto Mancini for – “Thursday night, channel 5”. How’s that for bittersweet?
There is no point crying over spilt milk, or whining over the rules. Some feel that as Chelsea finished level on points with Shakhtar Donetsk and with a better goal difference, they should go through. To which I say, bull. We knew going into the competition how things went down – when points are level, it is head-to-head that takes prominence over goal difference. These have been the rules since Day 1. If Chelsea fans want to find fault with anything, it is the home game at Juve, where we threw away a 2-goal lead, and the costly losses away at Juventus and Shakhtar that really did the damage.
So as the problem is entirely of our own making, I suggest we accept the lemons that life has dealt us and try and make lemonade from them. The Europa League is not ideal, it’s true – Thursday night games, meaning Sunday games in the league spent playing catch up, not to mention the loss in TV revenue. But a European competition is a European competition. The fact that winners of the 2012 Europa League, Atlético Madrid, beat us comprehensively 4-1 in the Super Cup back in August shows that the teams in this competition are no duds.
I would like to see Benitez experiment a little bit in the Europa League. First and foremost, I want Marko Marin to play. The German has seen so little game time of late that some Chelsea fans have been left pondering if he actually exists. He was quite the head-turner at Werder Bremen and his slight 5’7” frame and swift movement has caused defenders problems. It is probably fair to say Benitez does not rate the Europa League as highly as AVB does (the Portuguese is clearly intimidated by Chelsea’s presence in it because last night he was complaining about our right to be in the competition), so if he feels the stakes are so low, he may as well give little Marko Marin some playing time. We’d love to see what he can do.
Something that Benitez did on Wednesday night that I actually agreed with (!!!!!) was, after Paulo Ferreira came on, he moved Ivanovic into centre-back in Luiz’s place, and had David Luiz playing in the Makelele role. This is the position that Chelsea fans have repeatedly been crying out for Luiz to be fielded in. The Brazilian is undoubtedly a talented player, but his fondness for bombing forward and forgetting his defensive duties leaves our nerves far too frayed.
The holding role suits his preferences much better, and with John Obi Mikel accruing a three game ban (don’t even get me started on that, suffice to say my opinion of the FA is in line with what Ashley Cole thinks of them), we have a vacancy in his role that desperately needs filling; the Nigerian has blossomed in the position in such a way that really deserves more attention. Luiz at centre-back has always felt a bit too square-peg-round-hole for my liking. I would like to see Benitez play him as defensive midfielder against Sunderland; I have a feeling Luiz will find his square hole there.
Speaking of Mr Luiz, he has to be in for a shout to be our penalty taker in the absence of Frank Lampard. Eden Hazard, who missed his spot-kick in a crazy 18-minute-spell in which three penalties were awarded, takes his with far too much nonchalance for my liking. The Belgian is a cool customer, no doubt about it, and the majority of the time his playing style merits his strut. But when it comes to penalties, I am far more inclined to the Lampard, Ballack way of taking them: smashing them.
I remember being in the crowd on October 31st, when, in the dying moments of the game, Ramires won a penalty. I was practically biting my finger nails off, awaiting a Halloween nightmare as Hazard stepped up to take it. His casual stroke of the ball went in, but only because the goalie went the wrong way. As Wednesday showed, he will not always be that lucky and it is simply too hazardous to allow him to take our penalties in high-pressure situations. Ever since Juan Mata missed in Munich, his confidence at taking penalties has frayed the Spaniard as shied away from such duties. It is time Hazard joined him.
Benitez lives somewhat of a doomed life; when he does eventually get tactical decisions right and wins a game, because of results elsewhere, in the end it doesn’t even matter. He will never win Chelsea fans over, but to get them off his back, a win away at Sunderland would be very small start. When Chelsea play at the Stadium of Light on Saturday tea-time, it will be 17 days before Christmas. For Yuletide this year I won’t be asking for diamond rings, Prada dresses or Mulberry handbags. Our first league win under Benitez would be a sufficient – if surprising –present from Chelsea.