The story began on Tuesday, September 13th. Chelsea played against Bayer Leverkusen to open up our Champions League campaign. There was no real hope there - things looked promising under Andre Villas-Boas but there was no reason to believe that the side was good enough to lift the European Cup in Munich. That title would belong to Barcelona, or Real Madrid. Bayern Munich were a decent outside shout too. But not Chelsea - at best we were probably looking at a quarterfinalist.
And yet, here we are. Eight months later, we're hours removed from John Terry and Frank Lampard lifting the trophy at the Allianz Arena after a penalty shootout win against hosts Bayern Munich. Seriously. Chelsea won the Champions League on May 19th, 2012. If you had told someone that this was going to happen to us a year ago, they would have assumed you were a lunatic. If you had told someone that this was going to happen two months ago, they would have assumed you were a lunatic. But we're champions nonetheless.
Legions of bitter fans will claim that we didn't deserve it, that we were the lesser team. We certainly didn't play at anything like our best - I identified two key battles that we needed to win, and we didn't even come close to competing in either. Roberto di Matteo played Ryan Bertrand on the left in an attempt to shut down Bayern's wide play, but the young fullback could only do so much when the hosts dominated in all areas of the field.
It was clear from the outset that Bayern were their usual selves and Chelsea were playing like they had no idea how to kick a football. We were being destroyed in every part of the field - Lampard failed to sever the link between Toni Kroos and Thomas Mueller and watching Jose Bosingwa go up against Franck Ribery was roughly as painful as this complete failure of a simile. Chelsea were nowhere close to their best and were going to have to defend, defend, defend and hope for the best.
The only good news from the first few minutes was that Bastian Schweinsteiger picked up a yellow card for an intentional handball very early on, which was presumably the cause of him virtually vanishing from the match thereafter. The Blues looked good whenever they did go forward, but with the midfield sitting very deep and the fullbacks scared to commit to challenges they basically never had it. That was bad.
Robben saw a shot just about parried onto the post by Petr Cech as the defence opened up. Mario Gomez turned Gary Cahill inside out only to blaze over. Thomas Mueller volleyed \wide. Ribery mishit a shot so badly it nearly turned into a cross. All Chelsea had was a Juan Mata free kick (blazed well over) and then a neat Salomon Kalou hit that Manuel Neuer saved at his near post.
Bayern should have been ahead at the half. They should have been well ahead at the half. But they weren't and they weren't testing Cech much either. Whenever they took a shot, it tended to be blocked or hit well wide, which would have been excellent if Chelsea could manage something approaching an attacking threat. They couldn't, however, and we just had to watch as red shirts flooded forward time and time again. At least they were getting frustrated and snapping at shots.
For some reason, the FOX Sports feed was significantly slower than Twitter, so I saw Mueller's goal before the play even developed. 1-0. Toni Kroos swung in a cross and Mueller nodded off the ground and somehow squeezed the ball between Cech's hands and the crossbar. Looking on replay, it's pretty clear that Gomez fouled the otherwise sublime Ashley Cole in the buildup, but the goal stood and it was, realistically, no more than Bayern deserved.
There were seven minutes left and I was already composing the match report in my head. I was going to say that I was disappointed to have lost at the death, that Bayern Munich were an excellent team with wonderful fans, that I was proud of the club, and then I was planning to go curl up in a ball and try to die. I'd given up.
Didier Drogba had not. Chelsea won their first corner of the match in the 88th minute, and despite the hosts swapping Daniel van Buyten in specifically to deal with an aerial threat, the Blues would score from the set piece. Frank Lampard ran a brilliant screen on Jerome Boateng and Drogba met Mata's delivery with his head, glancing it off Neuer and in at the near post. Suddenly, miraculously, Chelsea were level.
And the momentum was entirely with the Blues. If any team had won it before extra time, it would have been Chelsea, and Drogba had a great chance to make it 2-1 just before injury time was over with a free kick won by substitute Fernando Torres only to blaze well over the bar. The match would go to extra time. Already, Chelsea had achieved something incredible. Bayern Munich had won every home match in the Champions League this season, scoring two or more goals every time. After ninety minutes, it was 1-1.
It seemed like destiny that the much-reviled Torres, Chelsea's dagger at the Camp Nou, would be the one to win it for us. It wasn't, but not for lack of trying. The striker took on the entire Bayern defence at the very beginning of extra time, dancing past them before finally being brought down by Jerome Boateng. No penalty was given.
And then, almost instantly, the referee pointed to the spot. Our spot. Drogba had tracked Ribery into the box and clipped his Achilles tendon as the winger shaped to shoot. The penalty was a little soft, but there could be few complaints. Up stepped Robben, scorer at the Santiago Bernabeu. Cech stood tall before diving to his left, to exactly the spot Robben had aimed. It was another incredible penalty miss, the second in Chelsea's last two Champions League matches.
Was fate with us. It certainly seemed that way when Ivica Olic completely spurned a tap-in later in extra time, opting for an incredibly silly pass to van Buyten when the goal was gaping. The match was going to penalties, and although Moscow loomed large in everyone's mind, it looked like Bayern were far more worried about blowing their chance than we were.
More than two hours had passed before Philipp Lahm stepped up to the spot. Cech guessed the right way but could only push it into the side netting. And then Mata missed, his weak effort easily saved by Neuer. David Luiz got the Blues on the board with a spectacular shot that was rocketed into the top corner, but by that point Bayern were already 2-0 up thanks to Mario Gomez's successful effort.
Neuer took the third penalty himself, with Cech guessing the right way - again - but failing to get a hand to the ball before Frank Lampard converted straight down the middle to make the score 3-2. And then Cech pulled off one of his all-time great saves, flying across the goal to push Olic's well-struck effort wide. Ashley Cole responded with a wonderful strike, bringing Chelsea back to level pegging.
It was sudden death now, and Schweinsteiger, the heart and soul of a frankly incredible Bayern side, stepped up. He was exhausted, playing on an injured ankle, but he'd scored the winning penalty in Madrid and should have notched here. He didn't, hitting the post via Cech's fingertips. The inconsolable midfielder had to be dragged off the spot by his teammates. Didier Drogba was taking his place.
There was an element of redemption to Drogba taking the fifth and final penalty. He should have been the one winning it for us in Moscow. He would have been the one, if he hadn't been sent off for his slap on Nemanja Vidic at the end of extra time. But here he was now, four years later, with the European Cup on the line.
Manuel Neuer never had a chance. He guessed the wrong way and the Ivorian ended the season with a well-placed effort straight into the bottom corner, earning the Blues a 1-1 (4-3) win.
Ghost goals? Whatever. Penalty heartache? The same. The Barcelona disgrace? Not forgotten, but it doesn't hurt nearly so much anymore. Chelsea are champions of Europe, finally earning the prize that's eluded the club for so long. It wasn't supposed to be our year. We didn't care.
Chelsea have won the 2011-12 Champions League. I don't know when this will sink in. I almost hope that it never really does.