The last two-legged fixtures of the Europa League begin on Thursday, and all eyes will be focused on Switzerland and Turkey.
What do Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Zenit St. Petersburg and Tottenham have in common? All four exited St. Jakob-Park as beaten sides.
This will be Basel’s first appearance in a major European semifinal, bettering the mark set last season in the Champions League — losing to eventual runners-up Bayern in the last 16. The RotBlau’s strength comes from their superior home form, unbeaten in their last six in the competition, having only lost once all season on their home turf, and that was eight months ago. Since taking over for Heiko Vogel last October, Murat Yakin has continued Basel’s giant-killing status, and is close to achieving the ultimate prize of a European trophy.
Chelsea is feeling the burden of long and tiring season, this being match 62. The last 26 days provided very little rest, contesting eight games over three competitions. Fatigue is setting in, which was visible over the weekend after conceding an injury-time equalizer at Anfield. The trip to Switzerland is the first of six games in the next 16 days, culminating with a week’s rest before ending their domestic campaign at home to Everton, which could be crucial to their European ambitions next year. Every fixture is practically a final at this point. Chelsea is a wounded predator, and losers of successive European away fixtures. This is Rafa Benitez’s last shot at silverware, and arguably more important to the out-going manager than a top-four finish, though he would never say that out loud.
The first leg on Thursday will decide the winner. Basel must go all out and produce a victory, or a goal-less draw at the very least to have a chance at the final in Amsterdam.
Coming off a dominating performance over Lisbon rivals Sporting, which extended their domestic unbeaten run to 26 games, Benfica seem to be the real deal, and arguably favoured to be the last team standing on May 15th.
It’s difficult to overlook their impressive winning percentage, having only suffered defeat twice all season, both happening in the Champions League to Barcelona and Spartak Moscow. The loss in Moscow combined with Celtic’s jaw-dropping upset of Barcelona is the reason for dropping down to the Europa League and out of the running for Europe’s top prize.
What makes this fixture most intriguing is the proficiency of both sides away from home. Benfica are undefeated in all three games played outside of Portugal in this competition, and Fenerbahce are undefeated in all six of their Europa League matches. On the home front, Fener has lost only once in Europe at Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, five months ago in the group stage of the Champions League.
The journey to Istanbul is never a pleasant experience for any opponent — a hostile atmosphere is waiting for you as soon as you step off the plane. Taking into account no visiting team has exited Estadio Da Luz with maximum points, anything but a victory would seriously damage the prospect of a Turkish participant in this year’s final, this being Fener’s first semifinal appearance. Domestic rivals Galatasaray were the first and only club to do so back in 2000, memorably beating Arsenal on penalties to lift the UEFA Cup.