Chelsea: The road to the Champions League final

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Few would have expected that as Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Michael Essien sat on the bench while Andre Villas-Boas oversaw Chelsea’s 3-1 defeat against Napoli, that two weeks later the Blues would be the last English team standing in European competition thanks to a rally from the old guard.


Strikes from Didier Drogba, John Terry –also absent on that difficult night in Naples – and Frank Lampard took the game in to extra time before Branislav Ivanovic, a spring chicken at just 28-years-old, hit the winner in extra time.


While west London was celebrating Manchester was in mourning as both United and City were unceremoniously dumped from the Europa League a day later.


Sir Alex Ferguson could do little as a Basque bombardment sent his side spiraling out of the competition; Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao side were a force of nature as they claimed a 2-1 win at the San Mames stadium to take the tie 5-3 on aggregate.


Facing less formidable opponents, City made a hash of their last remaining chance to win a knockout tournament this season as Sporting Lisbon sauntered into a 2-0 lead at the Etihad Stadium.


While City eventually mounted a spirited comeback and came agonisingly close to scoring the fourth goal they needed to qualify for the quarter-finals, Joe Hart of all people saw his effort saved wonderfully, and with that went their Europa League hopes.


That leaves a Chelsea side seemingly in ruin as the sole representative of all that is great and good about English football on the continent.


While Apoel Nicosia represented dream opponents, Benfica, with the second leg crucially at Stamford Bridge, represented a decent day in the office for Chelsea the names were pulled out of the hat in a small corner of Switzerland.


With two Benfica graduates in their ranks, David Luiz and Ramires, Chelsea will go into their quarter final tussle with renewed zeal that missing from the team that was down and out following a string of Premier League defeats, the loss at Napoli and the 1-1 draw with Birmingham in the F.A Cup.


However Roberto di Matteo – who is in the midst of giving the most convincing job interview possible- and his merry men will have to be careful of avoiding the pitfalls of Manchester United, who came undone against the Portuguese side in the group stages.


Twice United were held to draws, the latter proving particularly harmful to Ferguson’s sides hopes of making the knockout stages, with the dangerous trio of Nicolas Gaitan, Javi Garcia and Maxi Pereira and their pretty patterns likely to pose a threat to Chelsea’s hopes of progression.


Should they negotiate that task then an old adversary will likely stand in their way once more; Barcelona.


Both sides have a shared heritage in the final rounds of the Champions League, engaging in a series of duels that have made their way into the history books of the competition.


Of course Barcelona must first negotiate their own quarter final, where they face an A.C Milan side whose reputation diminished somewhat as they almost through away a four goal advantage in their last 16 tie against Arsenal.


The two teams met in the group stages and played out two wonderful games, the first a 2-2 draw in the Nou Camp which was followed by a 3-2 thriller at the San Siro that was just edged by the Catalan club.


While Barca under Pep Guardiola appear as formidable as ever their frustrated Challeneg for a fourth consecutive La Liga title has been littered with draws against lesser sides and those willing to be patient and strike on the counter.


That is not Chelsea’s natural game but they will certainly need another dimension that the rough and tumble that took them to victory against Napoli.


During his temporary spell in charge back in 2008, Avram Grant led Chelsea to a Champions League final in Moscow.


Abandoned, bewildered and without the recently departed Jose Mourinho, the Israeli manager somehow pulled together many of the men who still play in Blue and led them to an unlikely final appearance against Manchester United.


That game ended in tears for John Terry and his men after penalties. The road that leads to the Allianz Arena in May has been laid out for di Matteo to follow in a manner similar to the class of 2008. Now all he has to do is walk along it.

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