LONDON, April 24 (Reuters) - Chelsea are in the last chance saloon as far as a trophy goes and Fernando Torres, complete with his ‘Mask of Zorro’, must continue his recent improvement in swashbuckling style in Thursday’s Europa League semi-finals.
Fenerbahce welcome Benfica in their first leg while European champions Chelsea face a tricky trip to Basel without the cup-tied Demba Ba, meaning fellow striker Torres will take up the fight as the Londoners chase Europe’s second prize.
Group stage elimination as holders in the Champions League has been followed by the lack of a Premier League title challenge and defeat in the FA Cup semi-finals by Manchester City.
Unpopular interim coach Rafael Benitez is left with the Europa League as his only hope of quitting in May with a modicum of pride restored and Spanish compatriot Torres, still playing with a mask to protect a broken nose, feels upbeat.
“We have a young squad and we need to learn winning ways and this is a very good way. It is not the Champions League but it is the Europa League,” Torres told www.uefa.com.
”Now we’re in the semi-finals everyone can see we want to win and the team I think is happy.
“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. But the Europa League is keeping us in a good mood and thinking it could be a good season.”
Torres, who has struggled for sustained form since joining Chelsea in 2011, was highly impressive in the last round when he scored three goals in the two legs against Rubin Kazan.
His improved confidence has even led pundits to say he should stick with the mask until the end of the season, some comparing it to a ‘comfort blanket’ he can hide behind.
However, he laboured against former club Liverpool in Sunday’s 2-2 Premier League draw.
John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Gary Cahill, Victor Moses and Yossi Benayoun were all left out of the starting XI at Anfield but are likely to return on Thursday.
Basel have reached a European semi-final for the first time and Chelsea will be wary after the Swiss team confidently dispatched London rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the last eight.
The Swiss club are the only domestic champions among the Europa League last four and have played more European matches this season (18) than any other surviving team, having begun their campaign in the Champions League second qualifying round.
Their odyssey started against Flora Tallinn in Estonia on July 17. Since then they have played in Norway, Romania, Portugal, Hungary, Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and England.
Basel, Swiss champions for the last three seasons, have lost only two league matches since Murat Yakin, a former Switzerland defender, took over as coach at the end of October and are unbeaten domestically this year.
They lead the Super League by three points from Grasshoppers and have reached the final of the Swiss Cup, putting them on course for a second successive double.
“Chelsea are the best team left in the competition but there is no reason to feel upset or afraid of this draw. I’ve never been to Stamford Bridge and I‘m looking forward to going there,” said Yakin.
Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, 20, is a player to watch.
Twice European champions Benfica travel to Istanbul after a morale-boosting 2-0 win over Lisbon rivals Sporting on Sunday kept them top of the domestic league.
It was the Eagles’s eighth consecutive league win as their attacking firepower has brought them close to a memorable treble of league, cup and Europa League.
One of the main Benfica threats on Thursday will be skilful Argentine winger Nicolas Gaitan who stood out on Sunday with two assists and a man-of-the-match performance.
“He sometimes gives the ball away easily but that happens with players like him who are full of magic and can go on and decide games,” coach Jorge Jesus said of the 25-year-old.
Fenerbahce’s chances of the Turkish title were hit on Sunday when they lost their first game in 11 matches, going down 2-0 at Genclerbirligi to slip seven points behind leaders Galatasaray.
“There’s nothing we can do but focus 100 percent on the Benfica game,” coach Aykut Kocaman told reporters.
Kocaman used striker Moussa Sow for only 33 minutes on Sunday to save him for Thursday when he is set to partner Dutchman Dirk Kuyt in front of their famously fervent fans.
The second legs are on May 2. (Additional reporting by Brian Homewood, Daniel Alvarenga in Lisbon and Ece Toksabay in Istanbul, editing by Tony Jimenez)