Did the Blues Deserve to Win?
The deck seemed to be stacked against Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea before either squad stepped onto the pitch. The “neutral” site at which the Champions League final was to take place just happened to be their opponent’s, Bayern Munich, home ground. Allianz Arena, where Bayern has played home fixtures since 2005, is a mammoth structure that seats 69,000. On this particular day, Allianz was guaranteed to boast a home to travelling fan ratio of at least 2:1. Not a strikingly favorable atmosphere for the West Londoners, especially considering the neutral nature of the event. This was compounded by the absence of four key members of the club from the lineup, including stalwart defender and eternal dirtbag, John Terry. The Blues were entering hostile territory with a depleted lineup, while riding a string of incredible results that just seemed to have to end at some point. Chelsea came back from a deep 3-1 hole against Napoli to advance in jaw-dropping style. The club then overcame a Barcelona side which many touted as one of the best to ever stop foot on the pitch. It just seemed as though the clock would have to strike midnight at some point, and an away game in the south of Germany was as appropriate a juncture as any.
The game began as many of the talking heads that Fox Soccer Channel stressed it would since 8:00 that morning. As an aside, if FOX was going to roll out some of its core NFL Sunday crew and place them in positions they were woefully underprepared for, why not bring the house? Why not fly Tony Siragusa across the pond and let him give a halftime tutorial on set pieces? If you think that guy can’t get some velocity on a header goalwards … you’re probably right. Anyway, Bayern came out flying and pressured the hell out of the Chelsea backline. Chelsea, however, absorbed the pressure, and continued to do so throughout the entire game. Despite being brutally outshot, Bayern’s shots very rarely challenged Cech, as Chelsea’s defense and midfielders (with the exception of Bosingwa, whose performance disgraced unibrows everywhere), limited Bayern to ambitious shots across the bow from significant distance.
This, surprisingly enough, seemed to be Chelsea’s game plan. Despite the premium that Abramovich has set on Champions League (he claims to have his heart set on three more), and the painfully obvious sense that if the trophy was not captured, that Di Matteo would surely not be able to nix the “interim” bit on his business card, Chelsea seemed content to absorb Bayern’s pressure and play searching, hopeful balls to Drogba and Kalou. Classic Italian football, but playing for a tie when a shootout sits between your team and the greatest trophy in European club football seems like one hell of a gamble to me.
The game was perpetually at the mercy of the Bayern Munich attack. Despite being in the driver’s seat for the entire game, Bayern offered no display of the clinical and efficient finishing for which they are renowned. While some seemed to shrink from the moment, others seemed too eager to grab personal glory. From the outset, it seemed to me that Mario Gomez would be the player that the outcome of the match would be hinged upon. I have not seen Gomez play very often in competition beyond that of the World Cup and the Champions League. However, his finishing prowess is well-known throughout world football. This was furthered evidenced by the fact that a majority of the balls played in the Bayern attacking third in the early going seemed to be focused upon getting him involved. Although he squandered his first few chances to give Bayern an early edge, it seemed only a matter of time before he finished the job. He always seemed to be in the right area, and the balls continued to be sent his way. However, he never got the job done. He simply shrunk from the moment. It is supposed to be the away team’s nerves that ultimately betray them. However, the white-hot light of a game in which Bayern was the favorites in front of the hometown crowd proved too much for the poor guy. He seemed dazed and confused as he continued to rip point-blank shot ten feet over the Chelsea net. Gomez is not alone in shouldering the blame for Bayern’s poor execution in the attacking third, though.
While Gomez shrunk from one of the biggest moments in his football career, Dutchman Arjen Robben tried to make the game his masterpiece. Robben, formerly a Chelsea man, seemed to feel that this was his game to win. Playing the hero as he denies his former club the glory of a Champions League seemed to be too perfect a script for Robben and his uncomfortably tight shirt to pass up on. Thus, Robben time and time again forced the issue in the attacking third. He made little to no effort to involve his fellow running mates in the attack. Instead, Robben elected to repeatedly take capable defenders one-on-one en route to an abysmal attempt from distance that sailed high and wide or was stymied by said Chelsea defender. Robben’s poor free kicks, corners, and decision making slowed the flow of the Bayern offense, as well as effectively taking Frank Ribery out of the game. Ribery is accustomed to having a major impact on a match, just as Robben. So, as the attack grinded to a halt virtually every time the ball came into contact with Robben’s boot, Ribery tried to make more out of the limited touches he saw. This resulted in the Frenchman trying to cover too much distance with the ball at his feet, or taking an ambitious attempt on the cage. I admittedly pay far more attention to English football than its German counterparts, but I thought Chelsea was the team of enlarged egos. There was talk of a locker room scuffle between Robben and Ribery, but nothing on the scale of senior members of the Chlesea contributing to running their manager out of town. However, it was the egos of Bayern Munich in this game which held the greatest weight.
In the end, Chelsea’s defensive outlook did not fail them. Muller’s late header, which he put past a Petr Cech who I suspect wishes he could have another crack at that save, was answered by a thunderous header by Didier Drogba on the Londoners’ first corner of the match. Chelsea chances were few and far between, but Drogba again proved himself as one of the most lethal strikers in the world when his side is in desperate need of a goal. Drogba was the assassin that Gomez could not will himself to be. Cech’s save on Robben penalty kick was simply meant to happen. Chelsea had come too far in the tournament to be derailed by a boneheaded mistake from its wily savior. Robben, with a little help from Mikel, had put too much pressure on himself. Robben’s time at Chelsea likely clued Cech into the Dutchman’s intentions. As for the penalty shootout, the truth seemed to reside in the body language. Schweinsteiger and Olic, the two Bayern players who did not convert their penalties, walked from half field with their heads down, almost timidly. It seemed as though they were afraid of failure. They are German players, representing Germany’s best known club on their home soil in one of the most crucial club matches they will ever play. And it got to them. The anguish on Schweinsteiger’s face was evidence of just how debilitating a failure that was to him. Drogba strode up to the ball with an air of apparent confidence, and buried the ball in the net for the win. Chelsea handled its business when it had to, Bayern did not.
Chelsea’s game plan ultimately worked out for them. They absorbed Bayern’s pressure, and converted their chances when their need was most dire. Bayern squandered chance after chance, even when it seemed that the game was handed to them during extra time. They seemed to wilt under the spotlight of their own arena, and failed to bring trophy a short walk down the tunnel to their hardware room. Who is to say that Chelsea did not deserve to win this game?
As for Chelsea fans, I hope that they enjoyed the ride. Drogba has confirmed that he will be leaving the club. I would not be surprised if RDM does not receive managing duties, despite the players overwhelming support. This will likely lead to another overpaid coach at the helm, who is at odds with overpaid players as well, and more Premiership failure. The chances of Chelsea pulling off another run of this magnitude next year are too slim to pick your teeth with, so bask in the glory while you still can.