Chelsea began the 2012-13 season hoping to defend their Champions League crown and challenge for the Premier League title. After an excellent start in the Premier League, off-field issues distracted the Blues from the task at hand.
They lost their grip on the Premier League, and by the halfway point of the Champions League group stage, they had picked up four points from a possible nine. The team that had looked so good at the beginning of the season imploded, and with one game to go, the reigning champions' European future was out of their hands.
Whilst this was certainly disappointing, what followed were two actions that would define Chelsea's season. Roberto Di Matteo, Champions League-winning manager and cult hero, was unceremoniously sacked at 4 a.m. and replaced later the same day by former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. That 24-hour period set the tone for the next few months, as the fans' outrage at this unfathomable turn of events took hold.
Despite winning their final group stage match 6-1, the UEFA rule that away goals are considered before plain old goal difference saw the 2012 Champions League winners drop down into the Europa League. Having already missed out on the Charity Shield and the UEFA Super Cup, Chelsea travelled to Japan to lose the FIFA Club World Cup before being beaten in the semifinal of the Capital One Cup by Swansea City. When they needed a replay to beat Brentford in the FA Cup, it looked like there was no end to their decline, but as in 2012, things began to turn around in March.
The FA Cup comeback against Manchester United at Old Trafford gave the side a vital boost, and there was also something of a truce between Benitez and the supporters. Both parties acknowledged their mutual loathing but went about their business as usual, enabling the club to secure the bare minimum goal of reaching a final and qualifying for the 2013-14 Champions League.
A win on Wednesday would see the Blues become the first side to win consecutive major European trophies in reverse order. The Europa League final will add another 500 miles to Chelsea's jet-lagged season, but if they return with a trophy, it will soften the edges of what has been a difficult season for everyone involved.
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