It isn’t the final anyone predicted, even when there was only one hurdle remaining. Yet, having defeated Spain’s, perhaps even the world’s, two best sides, Bayern Munich and Chelsea find themselves on the brink of glory, in the Champions League final in Munich on Saturday.
It will also be a night of redemption for one team. While Bayern will be keen to make amends for their loss to Inter Milan in the final two years ago, Chelsea will be desperate to put to rest four painful semi-final exits – including to Liverpool on penalties and to Barcelona courtesy an injury-time goal – but more so, the heartbreaking defeat to Manchester United in a penalty shoot-out in 2008, when a slip by none other than John Terry saw them denied by the post in the final.
“It’s one memory I cannot forget,” said Didier Drogba, who was sent off in extra time in Moscow. “We've been waiting four years to be in this situation.”
The trophy represents a chance to make up for relatively disappointing domestic campaigns as well, with both sides having last won the league two years ago. Bayern lost out to Borussia Dortmund for the second season in a row, and were then drubbed 5-2 by the title winners in the German Cup final last Saturday. Meanwhile, despite winning the FA Cup, Chelsea endured their worst campaign in 10 years to finish sixth in the Premier League. That, in fact, has raised the stakes for them even further. Lose on Saturday and the west London club will find themselves out of the Champions League next year for the first time in nine seasons, and without the precious income participation in the competition brings with it.
Yet both sides will claim they deserve their place. Bayern came through the ‘Group of Death’ – with Manchester City, Villarreal and Napoli – in the first half of the tournament, before edging Real Madrid on penalties away from home in the second leg of the semi-final. Chelsea’s path was even more arduous – The Blues made heavy weather of coming through their group ahead of Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia, before a 3-1 defeat in the last-16 first leg at Napoli seemed to send a team already in disarray on the road to further ignominy. It definitely cost Andre Villas-Boas his job, but things turned around dramatically under Roberto Di Matteo after that, and an extra-time win over Napoli was followed by two heroic matches against Barcelona. Despite being under relentless attack from the defending champions, Chelsea resisted, took their chances, and – despite being down to ten men at the Camp Nou – held on.
A high price was paid for the progress, however, and Chelsea will have to take the field in the final without their influential skipper Terry – himself to blame for his red card against Barcelona – and Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles. Suspension will also keep out Bayern’s Luiz Gustavo, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber. Whichever team copes with these absences better, is likely to come out on top.
While Terry will be unable to exorcise the memories of Moscow, Franck Ribery will get a second chance after being suspended for the 2010 final. His volatile partnership with former Chelsea winger Arjen Robben will form the main attacking threat for the Germans, while Mario Gomez already has 12 goals in the competition so far – only two behind Lionel Messi – and his clinical finishing could prove to be crucial. Captain Philipp Lahm will have to lead the depleted back-line, while Bastian Schweinsteiger will be expected to dictate the play from the centre.
The midfield is precisely where Chelsea will miss the energy and pace of Ramires, with Florent Malouda also struggling for fitness. Gary Cahill and David Luiz, meanwhile, will form Chelsea’s patched-up defence, both inexperienced and returning from long lay-offs due to hamstring injuries. However, Chelsea have their own fearsome striker in Drogba, who, with his penchant for performing on the big stage, could use any defensive lapses by Bayern to his benefit.
There is also plenty of experience in both ranks. Bayern boast of eight German internationals, while the Chelsea old guard – the core of their recent success – has made a mockery of those who had written them off. All have a chance to make history, for themselves and for their clubs. The Bayern players, should they win the club’s fifth European Cup, can earn a place with the illustrious teams of the past and become the first side to win the Champions League on their own ground. For Chelsea, it would be their first ever Champions League triumph, a last chance at leaving a momentous legacy for this group of players and Di Matteo, whose future is still in the dark. “We want to be legends for this club,” said John Obi Mikel.
It is somewhat ironical that, having spent a large part of his huge investment into Chelsea on managers like Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, owner Roman Abramovich is close to fulfilling his long-held ambition of glory in Europe with perhaps the weakest team of his time under a caretaker manager, who has nevertheless lost only three times in 20 matches in charge. It is a trophy the Russian has coveted ever since he bought the club in 2003, to allow them to join Europe’s elite. Meanwhile, Bayern have targeted what Robben has termed the “match of our lives” ever since the Allianz Arena was selected to host the final in 2010.
Home advantage definitely makes Bayern favourites – they have lost only twice in the Bundesliga at home all season and won seven straight Champions League matches, while Chelsea have only one win on the road in Europe this season. So does the experience of manager Jupp Heynckes, who has already won at this stage, with Real Madrid in 1998. Should the game go to penalties, it would favour the Germans even more. Going by logic, the odds are stacked heavily against Chelsea once more. But then, if logic determined fate, neither of these teams would have been here to start with.