Much of Rafael Benítez’s success at Valencia was down to Pablo Aimar. When the former Liverpool manager, then a relative unknown, took over at the Mestalla in the summer of 2001, he faced the difficult task of replacing Héctor Cúper – the Uruguayan had an impressive curriculum vitae in contrast to Benítez’s inexperience. The Spanish manager forged his success around the Argentine playmaker and went on to win two La Liga titles and the Uefa Cup in 2004. Fast forward eight years, and the 32-year-old still has the raw materials to trouble any of Europe’s top sides if afforded time to weave his magic. In a blistering opening 22 minutes, the attacking midfielder was central to Benfica’s dominant start and took advantage of the space in front of Chelsea’s back four as John Obi Mikel doubled up on Óscar Cardozo with skipper John Terry. Even when the visitors were reduced to 10 men, Aimar still dictated Benfica’s tempo and artfully linked up with his team-mates, searching for a way past the Chelsea defence. The former Real Zaragoza midfielder teed up Cardozo, whose shot produced a top save from Petr Cech, while Aimar almost snuck a venomous effort past the Chelsea keeper’s near post moments later.
David Luiz has certainly made improvements since Roberto Di Matteo replaced André Villas-Boas at the Stamford Bridge helm. The Portuguese defender had appeared to taper his flamboyant tendencies which have often landed the 23-year-old and Chelsea in bother since he joined from Benfica in January 2011. But Luiz reverted back to his old risk-taking self for the second leg. The warning signs were there in the 15th minute when he vacated his centre-half position and attempted to give an opponent the eyes but played it straight to a Benfica player. On the half hour mark, the centre-back was caught dithering on the ball and was duly dispossessed by Nicolas Gaitán, and while Luiz escaped unpunished against an unclinical Primera División outfit, Barcelona won’t be as accommodating. Luiz undoubtedly has the ability to become a world class centre-half akin to great ball playing defender such as Fernando Hierro and Gerard Piqué, or even former Blues stalwart Ricardo Carvalho – but he must learn to make defending his priority and a dash of flair merely an additional bonus. For the semi-final against holders Barcelona, the reliable Gary Cahill might be a safer choice to partner John Terry.
Benfica approached the return leg at Stamford Bridge with plenty of ambition and played with a fluidity that was missing at the Estádio da Luz last week. Perhaps aided by a nervous Chelsea side who played like a squad aware this could be a final hurrah at winning the Champions League. Jorge Jesus’ side constantly probed a Chelsea defence, which has already conceded 19 goals in the league at Stamford Bridge this season – and for the first quarter of the game appeared to be on the verge of grinding down the Blues’ resistance. But indiscipline cost the visitors in two flashpoints in the first half. Ashley Cole burst past the Benfica rearguard but the left-back’s run came to a sharp halt as García bundled the England international to the floor, resulting in a spot-kick which Frank Lampard duly dispatched. Jesus’ players voiced their frustrations over what they felt was an incorrect decision and Slovenian referee Damir Skomina booked Maxi Pereira for dissent. It would prove a costly caution as the Benfica skipper committed a reckless challenge on Mikel and received his marching orders before half-time.
Chelsea were given an insight into the task, perhaps an insurmountable one, which they’ll face against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona in the semi-finals. Benfica’s slick style of play threatened to spoil the Stamford Bridge party, particularly in the first half, as Di Matteo’s side were the beneficiaries of some wasteful finishing. Barcelona’s record goal scorer Lionel Messi won’t be as forgiving – and it is his threat, combined with an extremely mobile attack which is the biggest obstacle between Chelsea and a second Champions League final. The biggest battle will be in midfield, with the Blues’ ageing duo Michael Essien and Frank Lampard, and the one-paced Mikel facing the unenviable task of harnessing Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas. The Blues struggled to cope with the acceleration and movement of Napoli’s front trio of Edinson Cavani, Marek Hamsik and Ezequiel Lavezzi in the last-16, while Aimar was the standout performer on Wednesday night. But Chelsea’s do hold some advantages over the defending champions – mainly their superior height and power which Di Matteo must utilise against a Barcelona defence with demons of its own.
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