Fenerbahçe takes on red-hot Benfica in historic Europa League semifinal

Fenerbahçe takes on red-hot Benfica in historic Europa League semifinal

Fenerbahçe takes on red-hot Benfica in historic Europa League semifinal

Fenerbahçe’s Dutch attacker Dirk Kuyt (R), who scored a crucial goal in the quarterfinal first leg against Lazio, will again be one of the most important players of the Turkish team facing Benfica. DAILY NEWS photo, Emrah GÜREL

Fenerbahçe hosts Benfica tonight in a historic Europa League semifinal first leg game for the Turkish club.

The Yellow Canaries will hope to pull an upset against the Portuguese giants to advance for the second-tier European club competition’s final for the first time.

“This is the most important game of the Fenerbahçe history,” coach Aykut Kocaman said during a press conference yesterday.

The Fener gaffer also said that his team “will face a highly respectable opponent” and said the supporters should be aware of that.

Twice European champion Benfica travels to Istanbul after a morale-boosting 2-0 win over Lisbon rivals Sporting on April 21, the same day that Fenerbahçe virtually threw in the towel in the Turkish Super League with a 2-0 defeat to Gençlerbirliği. Fenerbahçe fell seven points behind leader Galatasaray with the defeat, meaning that the Europa League is the team’s most important target now.

“There’s nothing we can do but focus 100 percent on the Benfica game,” Kocaman said after the game.

Benfica claimed its eighth consecutive league win with the Sporting victory and its attacking firepower has brought them close to a memorable treble of league, cup and Europa League.

One of the main Benfica threats will be skilful Argentine winger Nicolas Gaitan who stood out on April 21 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.

Kocaman used striker Moussa Sow for only 33 minutes on April 21 to save him for tonight when he is set to partner Dirk Kuyt in front of their famously fervent fans.

In the other tie, Chelsea faces a tricky trip to Basel without the cup-tied Demba Ba, meaning Fernando Torres, with his “Mask of Zorro,” must continue his recent improvement in swashbuckling style.

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 for Chelsea.

Rafa on the edge

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 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 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 labored against former club Liverpool in a 2-2 Premier League draw on April 21.

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 today.

Basel has reached a European semi-final for the first time and Chelsea will be wary after the Swiss team dispatched London rivals Tottenham in the last eight.

The Swiss club is the only domestic champion among the Europa League last four and has played more European matches this season (18) than any other surviving team, having begun their campaign in the Champions League second qualifying round.