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Europa League

Bridge too far? Chelsea look to succeed where Spurs failed in Europe

Hands up if you fancy adding the Europa League to your CV.

IF CHELSEA ARE to salvage a trophy from their difficult campaign, they will have to succeed where their London rivals Tottenham Hotspur have already failed and beat Switzerland’s FC Basel in their Europa League semi-final tie.

The two sides meet at the St Jakob-Park in tonight’s first leg, with Chelsea wary of the threat posed by a side that eliminated Spurs on penalties in the quarter-finals. After starting the season as European champions, Chelsea never even wanted to be in this competition, but now the focus is on going all the way and lifting a trophy they have never won before.

The desire to do so is made even more acute by their recent FA Cup semi-final loss to Manchester City.

“The competition is helping the team a lot, because it is giving us a lot of satisfaction – not like in the Premier League this season, and we lost the semi-final of the FA Cup, so we were also close,” Fernando Torres, who could start the game on the bench if interim manager Rafael Benitez again chooses to rotate his squad, told

“But the Europa League is keeping us in a good mood and thinking it could be a good season.”

No English club has won this competition – which was re-branded from its traditional title of the UEFA Cup in 2009 – since Liverpool in 2001, although Middlesbrough and Fulham have both been runners-up since.

But if Chelsea are to make it to the final in Amsterdam on May 15, they must get the better of opponents who, as well as sending Zenit St Petersburg and Tottenham packing from Europe this season, also won at home to Manchester United and Bayern Munich in last season’s Champions League.

Basel have lost just once in 21 competitive games since the beginning of December – and that was an ultimately inconsequential 1-0 loss away to Zenit. Murat Yakin’s side are three points clear of Grasshopper at the top of the Swiss table with eight games left to play, and the coach is relishing the tie.

“Chelsea are the best team left in the competition, but there is no reason to feel upset or afraid of this draw,” he said recently.

The draw prevented Yakin, the former Swiss international of Turkish descent, from coming up against one of his former clubs in Fenerbahce, with the Turks drawn to face Benfica instead.

Like Basel, the Istanbul club are appearing in their first European semi-final, and will need to make the most of their home advantage in the first leg against Benfica, who are unbeaten in their domestic league all season and beat Newcastle United in the last eight.

To Fener midfielder Emre Belozoglu, Benfica were “the most difficult side we could have been paired with.” Portugal’s biggest club are desperate to get their hands on a European trophy again, more than 50 years after Eusebio’s team won back-to-back European Cups.

“We are growing and improving,” said sporting director Rui Costa after the semi-final draw was made. “We are happy to be here but we want more: our goal is to reach the final.

“Benfica have not participated in a European final for many years and we believe the wait could be about to end.”

© AFP, 2013

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