Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Chelsea Redemption.

On Saturday night, in Bavaria, Chelsea Football Club finally got their hands on the thing that has eluded them for so long: the Champions League trophy. Years of heartbreak, disappointment, last-minute goals and tears were purged with the most cathartic of penalty kicks from Didier Drogba. All those moments of hurt were forgotten as Chelsea players and fans celebrated this moment, this fantastic, unforgettable moment, as they were crowned European Champions of 2012.


Chelsea had very much been the underdogs going into this final, and after a few minutes played, it wasn’t hard to see why. The final this year was held in Munich and Bayern Munich looked very much like the home side, Chelsea, the anxious guests at a party they knew they felt they may not be welcome to. The two sides both lined up in what looked like 4-2-3-1 formations, but whereas Robben and Ribery created havoc for Chelsea all night down the wings, the West London club had the rather less glamorous pairing of Kalou down the right and Ryan Bertrand down the left. The 22-year-old youngster was a surprise name on the teamsheet on Saturday, having never even played in a CL game for Chelsea before. If stagefright got to the young lad, he certainly didn’t show it, and he and his mentor Cole did a commendable job of trying to stifle the siege of goal attempts that came their way.

Despite Bayern’s dominance throughout the game, Chelsea never lost their focus and Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel were faultless in their holding midfield roles. The latter lost all confidence under Andre Villas-Boas, when, following an error from the Nigerian leading to Liverpool scoring a goal at Stamford Bridge in November, AVB then froze him out. Roberto di Matteo, however, does not operate in such a draconian way as the Portuguese did (which might explain why he’s a Champions League winner and AVB’s at home eating a Pot Noodle and counting his payoff, js), and he injected confidence and belief back into Mikel. As such, the midfielder paid back his trusting gaffer richly with a fabulously controlled and shrewd performance on Saturday. That our possession statistics finished 45% to us when it felt like it’d been a lot less owed a lot to Mikel’s possession.

Despite doing the best they could to neuter the influx of Bayern attack, however, we all felt a goal from the German side was inevitable. And that it was, on the 83rd minute Muller headed the ball into the night from a great cross from Kroos. It seemed like the end, and marred an otherwise faultless performance from Luiz (who was ball-watching at the time of the goal), Cole (who got drawn towards the ball), and Cech (who could possibly reacted better.) That was it then, it seemed. Had Bayern Munich seen through the 1-0 lead and lifted the Champions League trophy, who could really begrudge them it? They’d played the better football all night.

But Chelsea were not having any of it. Whilst fans across the world fought back tears as we were staring in the face of another grim Champions League disappointment, Roberto di Matteo took off Kalou for Torres. The Ivorian has seen a renaissance under RDM, being yet another one of the player who was unfairly frozen out during AVB’s reign of terror (Kalou conceded one late penalty against Valencia in the group stages and as punishment for his mistake didn’t see a start for weeks. This ~flawless tactic used by Andre Village-Idiot was shown up beautifully when di Matteo put trust in the young Ivorian to play against Benfica, and he scored the winner that night. Just noticin’), but the Champions League final wasn’t one of his better games, and he was rightfully subbed for Torres.

And it was Torres who made a nuisance of himself near the corner flag, forcing a challenge from Contento to win Chelsea a corner as the clock ticked down. His compatriot Juan Mata took the corner, who had up until then had a relatively quiet game; Mata excels in matches where Chelsea play football, but when we churn out our brand of catenaccio as we did on Saturday night and also in the two legs vs Barca, his talents are left wanting. Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill did a jolly job of running around in the Bayern penalty area to confuse their defenders as to who to mark, leaving Drogba to jump up and head the most important goal of his life into the back of the net. It was a thumping goal, as good a header as you’ll ever see and it meant that, three minutes from time, having been comfortably on the backfoot for the entirety of the game, somehow, Chelsea were going to drag this into extra time. We were still in it! In fact, on the 94th minute when Mata was fouled and Chelsea were awarded an inviting free kick, some wondered if Drogba would win it then. As such, he blazed his shot over.


But the drama was far from over. In the third minute of extra time, Ribery found himself shimming into the penalty area. Chelsea have always been weaker defending down the right, as exhibited by Boswinga making a few suicidal moves during the game that relied on the fingertips of Cech to rescue. This was exemplified again, when Drogba, attempting to make an ill-advised tackle on Ribery much like he had done against Fabregas at Camp Nou, found himself clipping the Frenchman’s heels and conceding a penalty.
Just like Drogba’s foul on Fabregas at Camp Nou, he got away with it. Former Chelseabung Arjen Robben stepped up to take the penalty. The Dutchman had once missed for Chelsea in a semi final second leg penalty shoot-out at Liverpool, which led to the London club from getting dumped out of the CL in 2007, but overall, he is a consistent penalty taker, having scored one against Real Madrid in the previous round for Bayern. But luck was on Chelsea’s side. Luck and – let’s face it – some cheeky gamesmanship from John Obi Mikel, who found himself sledging Robben in the most Joe Hartesque way, consistently telling the Dutchman Cech would save his shot. And that Cech did. Chelsea fans breathed a huge sigh of relief, thanking their luck stars whilst at the same time getting increasingly agitated. So far in this competition we’d shown that we’ve probably got more lives than Super Mario. But even Super Mario dies eventually.

So then it was time for penalty shoot-outs. David Luiz, who had been in pain since about the 20th minute, stayed on the pitch. Paulo Ferreira was supposed to come on for Mata but once the cold realisation of penalties occurred, RDM chose to keep the diminutive Spaniard on the pitch. Chelsea lost the coin toss which meant that, as if playing a German team on their home soil on penalties wasn’t daunting enough, we now had to contend with taking said penalties in front of their fans. Bayern Munich had never lost a penalty shoot-out in Europe, we were told, and Chelsea had never won one.

And so the shoot-out began. Philipp Lahm, who missed one against Real Madrid in the semi finals, exhibited guts to take the first one, and he scored, though Cech got very close to it. Mata went first for Chelsea. The fear was etched across the little guy’s face and when he missed, it didn’t come as a huge surprise. Chelsea fans accepted defeat. It was 1-0 on penalty shoot-outs against a German side. We’d ridden our luck a long way to get where we were. Time to call it a day.

But if that was the script, the Chelsea players sure as hell weren’t adhering to it, for, after Mario Gomez scored a solid penalty, David Luiz stepped up to take Chelsea’s second. Now, I don’t think I’m alone here when I say I physically grimaced when I saw the Brazillian do his insanely long run-up to the penalty. I won’t lie, I thought he was going to blast it over. But Luiz proved me and all his detractors wrong by slamming it emphatically into the net with such force that you half expected the goal frame to fall down.

Manuel Neuer, who had already gotten a confidence boost by keeping Mata’s out, then cemented his hero status for Bayern fans by taking a cool penalty which squirmed into the net under Cech’s body. Frank Lampard had initially been down to take Chelsea’s fifth penalty, but as we were trailing 3-1 at that point and another miss would have made the deficit insurmountable to come back from, chose to go third. Neuer’s decision to go to the right was a solid one as that is the majority of where Lampard hits his penalties. However, had he paid closer attention, he might have noticed that Chelsea’s hunchbacked hero also has another penalty-taking pattern; when the penalty is of high pressure, more often than not, Lamps will smash it down the middle. This is what he did against van der Saar last season and against Hart this season. And that was what he did on Saturday night to make it 3-2.

Then stepped up Ivica Olic. English football fans might still have nightmares of the Croatian, as he scored one of the three goals at Wembley the night that we failed to qualify for Euro 2008. But there was definitely a trace of fear on his face as he took his penalty, and Cech read both his expression and his body language perfectly, in doing so making a fantastic one-handed save to keep it out. Then it was Ashley Cole for Chelsea. The Englishman missed last season in a penalty shoot-out against Everton to allow the Merseyside team to advance at their expense, but aside from that, he scores great penalties. That people all over the world were hating on him and willing him on to miss was a huge factor in why he scored, in my opinion. 3-3.

And then Bastian Schweinsteiger, the bloke who scored the decisive penalty against Real Madrid in the semi-final, stepped up to take Bayern Munich’s last penalty. “Well he’s German, that’s a forgone conclusion,” I said to my brother. And, as with my various bouts of duff decision-making in life, with boys and predicting football scores in the past, Bungy was wrong again. :p Perhaps it was his slightly staggered run that cost him, but Schweinsteiger’s technique in taking his penalty wasn’t bad at all. Cech may have gotten a fingertip to it to tip it onto the post. But it meant that, incredibly, despite missing our first penalty, the score was tied at 3-3 and we still had a guy to take the penalty.


And it couldn’t be more apt that the man to take the decisive penalty for Chelsea should be Didier Drogba. Just before taking his penalty, he gave Neuer the eyes. The German went the wrong way, and, despite his penalty lacking the power of Luiz, Lampard and Cole’s, having sent Neuer the wrong way, the ball hit the net, meaning Chelsea won the penalty shoot-out and the Champions League final.

Years of hurt and heartbreak were instantly erased with that penalty kick, that beautiful, cathartic penalty kick. Players fell to the ground, redemptive tears streaming down their faces as the fantastic realisation that they’d done it, they’d really done it! All that money, all those big names, all those years of going tantalisingly close without reaching the final outcome… and now it had.

Glee, euphoria, delight, redemption, atonement… not enough words to describe how ecstatic I was then, how ecstatic I was four hours after, how ecstatic I was the next day, how ecstatic I am now and how ecstatic I will always be when I think about Saturday 19th May, at the Allianz Arena.

In a night that needed heroes, Chelsea had them all over the pitch. Cech, for his reaction saves throughout as a well as his penalty heroics, is the first that comes to mind. The big Czech Republic international had done his homework and then some; the goalkeeper went the right way for all six of the penalties he was faced with, keeping three of them out. Then there’s Drogba, who, in the aftermath, announced his retirement from Chelsea. The Ivorian has given the West London club eight years of his life, and the rollercoaster ride has had highs, lows, and never been anything less than exhilarating throughout. That it should be him to score the equaliser on Saturday as well as the winning penalty kick (whilst in between casually conceding a penalty purely so that the haters could have some false hope that Chelsea would lose) epitomizes everything good that he has done for this club, and for that, every Chelsea fan will forever be in his debt.

Then there was Ashley Cole, who once again cemented his position as the best left-back in the world. Facing a plethora of Bayern attacks, the defender wowed fans with a stream of blocks and goal line clearances. It is worth re-iterating that, at 3-1 down in Napoli when the tie was seemingly out of our hands, Cole made one of his quintessential goalliine clearances to prevent the score from being 4-1, a deficit that we surely would not have recovered from. The man is a hero. In the absence of John Terry, David Luiz and Gary Cahill were thrown into the deep end, a feat no less daunting when you consider that both of them had been out of a spell with injury. But both were terrific; Luiz has been criticized over the course of the season for lacking defensive discipline but he was nothing but totally focused on Saturday, and Gary Cahill, who must be pinching himself at his reversal of fortune from going battling relegation with Bolton to playing in a CL winning side, threw his body on the line in a fearless way that would make John Terry proud.

And of course plaudits have to go to Roberto di Matteo, who picked Chelsea up from pandamonium when AVB was initially sacked and instilled our team with confidence and belief. No one was ever saying that Lampard had to play every game, but to be sat ignored on every big game merits an explanation at the very least. When RDM didn't play the big names, he still managed to keep them sweet by explaining his reasoning to them, rather than acting like he was above it. The fact that he as status as a Chelsea legend as a player naturally boosts his cause, but this wasn't something RDM rode on; he has shone tactical shrewdness beyond his years (the double marking of Cole and Ramires on Alves in the first leg against Barcelona comes to mind, as well as the super-defensive 6-3-0 formation he employed in the second leg when Terry got sent off that saw us through to the final). Abramovich would be a fool not to reward the one man who has given him what he wants - the big eared trophy - a contract.

And lastly, but by no means least, there was the one, the only, Frank Lampard. Chelsea’s captain for the night played in a more conservative role of holding midfielder, which has been the norm under di Matteo. Such is the manager’s guile that he immediately recognised that whilst Lampard’s aging legs may no longer accommodate the surging box-to-box midfielder role the Englishman is so accustomed to, that by no means there is no place left for him at Chelsea. And so Lampard took on this role and understood it impeccably. On Saturday he gave a performance of huge footballing intelligence and also exhibited bravery to take the initiative to be the third penalty taker (rather than fifth) when Mata missed his. He is a footballer of tremendous fearlessness and pluck, and has devoted no little part of his life in pursuit of this, the Holy Grail of football.

And so it happened, that Chelsea Football Club, incepted in 1905, won the Champions League on the 19th of the 05th. It was a performance of guts, spirit and determination. Chelsea proved to be trolls of the Universe by capping off a season when they have frequently been underwhelming by winning the FA Cup and the one they really wanted, the Champions League. Chelsea found their Holy Grail, forever wrote themselves into European football folklore and saw their happy ending. Abramovich’s billions of Roubles went some considerable way to attaining this goal, but the joy, the sheer, unadulterated joy of getting our hands on the thing that we wanted more than anything else, well. The ensuing euphoria and memories that will forever live on in our hearts are something that even a Russian Oligarch can’t buy