By DAN KARELL
Branislav Ivanovic couldn’t have picked a better time to score his first Europa League goal.
The Chelsea defender rose high off a corner kick in the third minute of 90th minute injury time, sending a perfectly placed header into the far side of the net and leaving Benfica goalkeeper Artur frozen in place.
With a flair for the dramatic, the Ivanovic goal lead Chelsea to a 2-1 victory over Benfica in the Europa League Final, the London club’s second straight season with a European title. Chelsea forward Fernando Torres scored the opener in the second half before Benfica front man Oscar Cardozo equalized just eight minutes later.
It seemed to be Benfica’s game to lose early, as they enjoyed a good run of possession, knocking the ball around Chelsea easily and nearly scoring twice in the first 20 minutes. Just before halftime, midfielder Frank Lampard nearly scored for the Blues when his swerving shot caught Artur off-balance, but the Brazilian somehow parried the shot over the bar.
Into the second half, the match evened itself out, but more or less against the run of play Chelsea would take the lead through Torres. Goalkeeper Petr Cech collected a cross and quickly sent an outlet throw into the midfield. One touch from teammate Juan Mata and Torres was off to the races, riding the challenge of Benfica defender Luisao, skipping past the oncoming Artur, and finishing into the net in the 60th minute.
Eight minutes later, and just a couple of minutes after a double substitution to bring on more attacking options, Benfica would secure their equalizer. Chelsea right back Cesar Azpilicueta deflected a header by Cardozo in the box with his hand, giving the referee no choice but to point to the spot. After a long run up, Cardozo slammed home the goal in the 68th minute, though he couldn’t celebrate due to a cramp.
Back and forth the two teams went in the final 20 minutes of the match, and there were moments when it looked like either side would win. Cardozo had a looping strike saved by Cech. Lampard had a long range effort blast off the bar just minutes from time.
In the end it all came down to a smartly won corner kick, and then a placed header from Ivanovic into the empty part of the goal in the 93nd minute. Benfica nearly tied it off the restart, but Chelsea defender Gary Cahill was on hand to clear the ball away from the dangerous feet of Cardozo in the box.
The win gives Chelsea their only silverware this season, despite playing in eight competitions across England, Europe, and the world. It’s the club’s fifth ever European title, but first in the Europa League. Meanwhile for Benfica, it’s deja vu as they lose their eighth successive European final, and could potentially end up empty handed in the league and Portuguese cup by the end of this season.