When the results came in on match day 6, it was confirmed that Chelsea would not be advancing to the knockout stages of the Champions League. In the last group games, Juventus beat Shakhtar Donetsk 1-0 sending both teams through and relegating Chelsea to the Europa League despite them thrashing Nordsjaelland 6-1 at Stamford Bridge as Torres bagged a rare brace of goals in an ultimately meaningless game. Juventus only had to avoid defeat to qualify so match day 6’s results merely cemented what we already knew on match day 5 when the Blues lost 3-0 to Juventus in Turin. That result and the failure to qualify ultimately cost RDM his job and left the team in the unfamiliar position of entering the Europa League for the first time.
So the Blues make their debut this Thursday in Europe’s “lesser” club competition as they visit Prague’s Generali Arena to play Sparta Prague in the first leg of their last-32 tie. An interesting point is that Chelsea will play all their weekend premiership games on Sundays until the end of the season as long as they are in the Europa League playing games on Thursday nights. Even so you still have to like the Blues’ chances of staying in the top 4 and qualifying for next year’s Champions League and as long as they do not get complacent I think they have the depth in their squad to seriously challenge for Europa League honours.
Last year both Manchester United and Manchester City were too cocky and paid the price losing to a technically brilliant Athletic Bilbao and the always skilful Sporting Lisbon respectively. If Chelsea can find a way past Sparta Prague they will face the winner of Romania’s Steaua Vs Holland’s Ajax which is not the worse draw. From there you just don’t know and Rafa Benitez does have good pedigree in Europe so perhaps he can finally deliver the kind of tactical plans needed to win theses tight European encounters, securing our second trophy in Europe in as many years and creating some positivity and goodwill from the fans from his interim period in charge. I know it seems highly unlikely at this point but let’s not forget that he does still have an awesome squad of players such as the in-form Mata, Lampard and Ba at his disposal with very few serious injuries to be concerned about.