For the record, Devin wrote this piece. He was having trouble posting it so I did it for him on the run. Also, apologies for nixing the score originally. That was a typo as I was in a real hurry (my girl's birthday dinner). Enjoy. And, you know, we fucking won the Champions League. Holy shit.
Redemption. Vindication. Triumph.
In the space of 120 plus minutes, Chelsea washed away four years of anguish, validated nine years of Roman Abramovich-led investment, and a lifetime of longing from a base of fans salivating for the taste of silverware on the continent. True to form, it was a battling display from Chelsea's aging core of veterans that left it late. Champions of Europe. Damn, it feels good to say that. More, after the jump:
We did it. Bitch.
Almost twenty-four hours since the opening kick, and I'm having a hellacious time wrapping my brain around yesterday's proceedings. Such was the magnitude of the event, the moment if you will, that I found myself watching in an almost catatonic state fearful of any small gesture or noise that might rupture the imperfect balance of the match. For almost two weeks, the speciation and punditry suggested that Bayern would run all over us, with the match being in their home town and whatnot. The belief bandied about was that their 'overwhelming' firepower would defeat our old guard in grand fashion. None of this, mind you, mattered to us in the build up. Not even Brad Friedel's useless excuse for a faux-Madonna English accent could dera the potency of our belief that somehow, someway, Chelsea would source another miracle. And did they ever. My word.
Led by Roberto Di Matteo's strong intuition, Chelsea fielded a very standard 4-2-3-1 formation, with the inclusion of one very unique rookie- Ryan Bertrand would make his first ever start in the Champions League (never mind that it would come in the Final). Deployed on the left side in a front three with Juan Mata and Kalou, Bertrand's involvement was a clear indication from Bobby that the threat posed by Robben and Ribery on the wings merited extra consideration- coming at the expense of Fernando's involvement from the start. Elsewhere, the lineup was as expected: Petr in the net, our ailing center backs Bob and Gary passing late fitness tests, Bosingwa and Cole the fullbacks, Lampard and Mikel through the middle, and Didier up top as a lone attacking threat. Since taking control of the side some right weeks ago, Roberto has sought to reinstall some of the defensive principles that have guided to Chelsea to succeed in recent years. For a Champions League final on the road, none of us could therefore be surprised that he would stick to the formation that brought him so much success is such a short space of time. Unsurprisingly, Bayern went with an identical shape, throwing Diego Contento, Tymoshuck, and Mueller into the starting lineup for their three suspended players. On paper, Bayern appeared to be poised for a thrashing display. In reality, they would create more gilt-edged chances than I care to remember but failed to capitalize.
The beating of the drums, the operatic singing, the rapturous thunder of voices raining down on the pitch combined to paint a landscape of cinematic proportions. The stage was set for the pinnacle showcase of the season between two clubs mired in anguish over recent shortcomings in this competition. For Bayern, a chance to touch the cup in their hometown and bring glory to al those in red desperate to claim supremacy over all. For Chelsea, a final act to vanquish the demons of 2008, and perhaps put a ribbon on the era of Didier, John, Frank, Ashley, and Petr. The only though pervading my mind prior to the kick was simply that we didn't wind up going to penalties again. It would be too much to ask this lot to get it done in such a fashion- nevermind that we would be going up against a German side that is both clinical and comprehensive in that department. The nerves rose to a fever pitch as both sides took their places. Would this be the day? Could we really defy the odds one more time? Did we have enough mettle in our hearts to pull out one more heart-stopping result? I couldn't hear myself think, with the volume cranked all the way up, my cold beers nearby, the pizza on tap, and every Chelsea kit I could find draped across the room. This was the match we wanted all along, this moment. All the heartache and pain would come to a boil in a flash.
As expected with a European final, it began as a cagey exercise in probing geometry. Bayern controlled possession and got off to a hot start, working the ball across the pitch from side to side, involving the axis of destruction (Robben, Ribery, Mueller, Schweinsteiger, Kroos, and Gomez) to great effect. Providing plenty of verve in the final third, I would be Bayern that created the first real chances of the match with Chelsea looking to stay firm, hold their lines, and attempt to hit on the counter. For the first 15 minutes of the match, it would be the hosts that dictated the proceedings, creating comfortable chances that Gomez flapped at. Snatching at times, confused at others, the Bayern hit man would befuddle even the most ardent of supporters with his indecision in front of goal. For a man carrying an impressive 17 goals in 20 Champions League appearances, the expectation would be that eventually one of his strikes would find the net. Elsewhere Munich had the luck of the Robben Ribery combination, which worked to unravel Bosingwa and company too many times to count. Despite an onslaught of corner kicks and chances created, Chelse eventually settled into the match and began cautiously probing up the pitch.
As Gary Neville would later remark, the strategy seemed clear: wait for a chance, and then pounce with aplomb. Kalou would be the first to get a true chance, with his shot from the right side of the box hitting Neuer in the hands after a beautifully worked counter. In the middle, pulling the strings, was the combination of Frank and Juan- as the deep lying playmaker and the forward moving attacker looked to unleash Didier in a one-on-one situation. With only three true chances created at the half, Chelsea would be thrilled that the score remained 0-0. Bayern's miserable finishing would be a talking point over intermission, as many wondered just how many more chances they could afford to squander before being bit by a Chelsea counter.
With no changes to either side, Chelsea would kick things off for the second 45, determined to make the match a tepid affair in the middle of the park. The combination of Bertrand and Cole worked feverishly to stunt Munich's venomous attacks all night, with Robben having to run miles to see daylight. The strategy, it appeared was working to perfection. Still, if Chelsea were content playing for extra time, it didn't seem obvious. Rather, their hand was forced by Bayern's brilliant work getting up the pitch and into attacking spaces. One critical adjustment made in the second half was the decision to throw Lahm further up the pitch to provide additional support to Robben and Mueller in attack.
This strategy seemed to work for a stretch, but not enough can be said about the work of Ashley Cole. Time and time again, he rose to meet the challenges of those in front of him, and never put a foot wrong. He was a giant, an orchestrator, and the most pivotal player on the Chelsea defense- serving as the stand-in vocal leader of the back four without John Terry, he put in the shift of his life. As the match drew on a sinking sensation began to bubble that Bayern would eventually find the net. Surely, 20 chances created would eventually come to equate a goal, right? Indeed, for after 82 minutes the breakthrough would arrive from Mueller- who deftly headed downward in front of Cech and watched his shot rise past the the keeper and into the back of the net. Cue the dogpile of Bavarians, and the sinking feeling in my heart. Was this how it would end? All the hard work and dedication would come undone like this?
No, there was fight in the old Drog still.
Chelsea held firm and began in earnest to search for an immediate equalizer. Di Matteo threw Fernando Torres on in place of Kalou and the result almost paid immediate dividends with the Spaniard breaking free and getting down the pitch right away. Munich, meanwhile, withdrew Mueller and added Van Buyten to the mix as extra defensive cover to see out the result. As Chelsea threw men forward in search of a goal, a corner opportunity presented itself. Juan lined up to strike, delivered a low-stinging drive that rasped into the box and found the free head of Didier, who had shaken off Boateng like a rag doll and .... YES!
The equalizer came just like that. 88th minute, left for dead. Not to be buried. Chelsea would rise. Game on.
By this point, my heart had exploded and my head was spinning. That man Didier once again, as he has always done throughout his Chelsea career, produced the most incredible of moments in conjuring a goal out of virtually nothing. Somewhere along the Iberian Coast, AVB watched in pained silence as the players he left for dead began growling with verve. As the 90 minutes came to a close, an eerie silence fell on the Allianz, with the German contingent so strong in their voices ten minutes earlier left stunned by the reality that Chelsea would not go gentle into that good night.
Dylan Thomas references notwithstanding, the momentum now clearly belonged to the Blues. Extra time beckoned, and I silenced the idea of penalties once again. There's just no conceivable way it would wind up going back that route would it? I mean, is this how we have to summit the mountain? By going through such a process for the second time. I barely had time to process the moment and lambast Brad Friedel's accent before things began again. Early in the first 15, Fernando found himself breaking free for a journey down the right side of the pitch, before being hacked down inside the penalty box by Boateng. No whistle to be heard however, and Nando continued to fight and scrape to salvage an opportunity- but his pass to Mata would be intercepted. Heading the other way, Munich began unlocking the defense by attacking Bosingwa and overloading his side of the pitch. With Didier and Fernando switching between the top spot duties, it would be Drogba that caused the third heart attack of the match, clumsily kicking the back of Ribery's leg and drawing a clear penalty for the Bavarians. As Ribery writhed in pain, I felt a chill take over my body. Perhaps I was drunk, or maybe it was divine intervention, but a part of me felt so strongly that this penalty would be denied. As Robben stepped forward to strike, I thought of all those times we saw him on the pitch in Blue, his comments about being the one to inflict the pain, his desire to win against our cause. The script seemed destined to watch the prodigal son triumph- but it would not be the case! His low drive was somehow stopped and swallowed by Cech, who looked dumfounded that he was able to prevent the shot from crossing the line.
By now, penalties were a certainty. Neither Chelsea nor Bayern posed much of a threat going forward in the second 15, presumably too concerned about leaving a gap behind their men to be exposed. As the seconds wound down to the inevitable, I had a legitimate panic attack. How on earth could we be here again? Champions League final, penalties?! Against the Germans no less, who seem to relish these moments. I thought aloud about who would take these- maybe Fernando, certainly Didier and Frank. The moment had arrived and it was all hanging in the balance. This was to be the most important moment of these players careers- would they buckle, or would they succeed? I didn't know, all I knew in that space was illness and an overwhelming desire to vomit.
Lahm struck first blood. Cech guessed correctly but could prevent it. 1-0. Juan stepped up and had his strike saved by Neuer comfortable. Fuck. Gomez arrived and delivered a strike that Cech could do little with. 2-0. Then David Luiz, who took some fifteen steps in the buildup before thundering a rattling strike past Neuer. 2-1. Oddly, Neuer would be the third man to shoot, and he listlessly strode to the spot and got his strike past Cech. Three times Petr guessed correctly and each time he was beaten by the finest of margins. 3-1 and I'm thinking this is the end. It has to be. German teams do not lose these things- they just don't. Next to strike would be Frank Lampard who delivered a vicious strike into the roof of the net, 3-2. Bayern responded by sending Olic to the spot. If he made this, it seemed it would be the end. As he strode to the spot, standing to the right of the ball to allow his left foot the space to strike, the worst feeling overcame me. I didn't want to believe it would be like this, but here we were. The shot, was somehow, SAVED. Pete got low and used his right hand to push it aside. Up strode Ashley Cole, my nominee for Man of the Match. Maybe an unconventional selection but somehow I felt reassured at his presence. He has taken spot kicks for England and has always had a gait which suggested quiet confidence. His shot would be perfect- a left foot curled into the side netting, 3-3 (HOLY FUCK). As Munich called on Bastian to hit, I wondered why Robben was not chosen instead of Olic. Bastian stepped up, hesitated twice and .... OFF THE POST!!!
Alas, the moment arrived. Stepping forward to strike and win the match, the mighty one, Didier Drogba. Fitting that this would potentially be his last touch of the ball in a Chelsea strip. Destined, it seemed, that he would be the man to send all those in blue to heaven. As he lined up the ball, a chill ran down my spine. No matter what Didier, you are a legend even if you miss this. But fuck, please, bury this and let's get out of here with a win. As he exhaled, I thought to myself that this was it- the ancient warrior would strike his final blow. Would it be enough?
In his final act as hero, Didier ended four years of pain with one destructive strike. Into the back of the net it went, and immediately the onrushing blue shirts descended upon the pitch. Madness, joy, relief, happiness. All of it, belonging to our 34 year old Ivorian hitman. Just like that, we were the best team in the land, on the continent, in the world. It happened to be that after years of close calls, Chelsea would profit. Nine years of aching on the part of Roman would be validated. John Terry's miss from four years ago erased. Sixth place in the premier league vanished. None of it mattered, as the confetti rained down, the players mobbed one another, and Di Matteo smiled earnestly.
Champions of Europe. The perfect end to an imperfect season, and the ultimate conclusion to an era of players respected, loved, and praised for their work. If this is bliss, then I want it again. If this is to be the end for some of our players, then what a way indeed to go out- as the ultimate. Hampions. Chelsea may never be the most popular team, boast the most beautiful style of football, or have the support of millions- but it will always have this night in Munich. This magical night, when spirit and determination triumphed in the face of adversity.
CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE.