Chelsea reminded of its past in Europa final but must focus on future
There is an irony in David Luiz playing so well as a defensive midfielder for Chelsea under Rafa Benitez in recent months. Just 10 days before Luiz meets his former club, Benfica, in the Europa League final in Amsterdam, there is a player in Lisbon waiting for a reunion of his own.
Benfica midfielder Nemanja Matic cost Chelsea €1.6 million when he joined the club from Slovakian side MK Kosice in 2009. He made three appearances for the team, spent a year on loan at Vitese Arnhem and was valued at €5 million when he was a make-weight in the €25 million deal that saw Luiz move to Stamford Bridge in summer 2011.
Matic found his path to the first-team blocked in his first season in Portugal, though he did play -- and played well -- when Chelsea edged past Benfica in the Champions League quarterfinals last season. In the summer, though, Benfica sold Javi Garcia to Manchester City and Axel Witsel to Zenit St. Petersburg. Matic took his chance and has played more games this season (36) than in any other campaign in his career, including his breakout season at Kosice as a 19-year-old.
Benitez clearly sees that Chelsea is deficient in that area of the pitch -- he has been playing Luiz there, for starters, and the club has been linked with a bid for Marouane Fellaini -- but maybe it should have held onto Matic for a little longer. Earlier this season, the 24-year-old extended his contract until 2018, and his buyout clause was placed at €45 million.
"Matic is one of the stars of Benfica at the moment," Frank Arnesen, who was Chelsea's sports director when Matic joined the club, told Portuguese newspaper O Jogo. "For a young player, as he was when we saw him first, it's a tough position to play in. The ball is lost a lot in that area, and then it's a problem for the team. You need to be able to control games and have eyes in the back of your head.
"Matic is Benfica's player of the moment. It takes three things to develop your career like he has done. First, luck; then the player has to want to learn, and for this to happen it takes a great coach to help you. And Benfica's coach Jorge Jesus has helped make Matic the star he is today. Obviously we saw potential in him and that's why we hired him, but he has also been improving a lot, and that's down to the coach. There are very few players with Matic's profile right now. He's still young, improving and gaining experience all the time."
Is he really worth €45 million, asked the paper. "I don't know," said Arnesen, adding that his current club, Hamburg, couldn't afford him.
There could be a lesson in the Matic story for Chelsea, though it doesn't seem one it is likely to heed. Its policy of picking up excellent young talents is still continuing, but so, it seems, might be the theme of ditching them before they get a chance. Chelsea should confirm the signing of Andre Schurrle from Bayer Leverkusen next month but might allow one of its own players, Kevin de Bruyne, currently starring on loan at Werder Bremen, to leave for Borussia Dortmund in a permanent deal.
Another loan player, Thibaut Courtois, has been La Liga's best goalkeeper this season for Atletico Madrid, and he looks likely to spend another year in the Spanish capital. By then, Petr Cech will only be 31 (relatively young for a goalkeeper), and the club must decide whether to cash in on Courtois -- who by then might be in the debate for the top three goalkeepers in the world -- or risk losing Cech.
A third Belgian out on loan, Thorgan Hazard (Eden's brother), is lighting up the Belgian league and helping Zulte Waregem build an unlikely challenge to Anderlecht for the title. All three, at one stage, were in the position Matic once was. Another 15 players are out on loan at other clubs. How Chelsea deals with their futures -- but especially those of the three Belgians (not to mention Romelu Lukaku, whose promotion may yet be stalled by the arrival of Radamel Falcao this summer) -- is worth keeping an eye on.