Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Truth Stranger Than Fiction

This was written by Travis Lankford, who will be the first person that I will regularly use as he will be the lead writer for all things football/soccer related. This is his write up for Chelsea's victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final. And yes, he's a Chelsea fan. You can follow him on Twitter here.

At the beginning of the Champions League campaign, not even the most delusional Chelsea fan would have guessed that we would have the honor to add a star to our crest but here we are, Champions of Europe. During the initial stages of our Champions League campaign, and still under the tenure of Andre Villas-Boas, it has come out that AVB himself told Drogba that it was impossible for us to win the Champions League this season. His tactics weren’t the only thing he was wrong about.  The focus, however, is not on our magical run-up but on that night in Munich.
Tactically speaking, this game was pretty straightforward. Di Matteo would go with his defensive 4-2-3-1 and Heynckes with his offensive 4-2-3-1. The question would be if Chelsea could deal with Bayern’s attacking unit comprised of Gomez, Ribery, Robben, and Muller (the latter having the best game of the four). Lampard and Mikel were off-set in their positioning, Lampard being a little bit further up the pitch, which allowed Muller a pocket of space to utilize the entire game. Bayern created numerous half-chances, due to either Bayern’s poor finishing or Chelsea’s excellent defensive positioning, as twenty-two blocked shots would indicate. Mata was to have space between Muller and defensive midfielders Schweinsteiger and Kroos but Mata failed at this. Chelsea struggled through its transitions and Drogba was a very lonely figure for the vast majority of the ninety minutes.  

The shock tactical decision was made by Di Matteo. Chelsea youngster Ryan Bertrand was given the start on the left side of Chelsea’s midfield. Rumors came out before the game partly due to Bertrand playing that same role in Chelsea’s win over Blackburn. This was to be the boy’s first Champions League game…ever. Bertrand played for a surprising 73 minutes before coming off due to an injury. Bertrand provided much needed cover for Ashley Cole and worked diligently throughout the match. A big decision to make but Di Matteo made the right call.

Ashley Cole was a revelation in defense; however, David Luiz has to be mentioned. The much maligned Brazilian swashbuckler has been shredded in the media during his Chelsea career. Need I remind anyone of Gary Neville’s infamous video game reference? He was a calm figure and defended very well. The cherry on his performance came after the Final; Luiz’s injured (muscle tear) hamstring flared up in practice and in the first 20 minutes of the Final. He played hurt for over 100 minutes.  This is the epitome of how Chelsea emerged victorious in Munich. The fight and desire to win while remaining steady and calm ultimately paid off for the boys in blue.

The tactical call that Di Matteo got wrong has to be how defensive Chelsea was. There was little impetus going forward and he looked content with Chelsea defending the majority of the 120 minutes. This was surprising because when Chelsea did have a fluid transition and were into the final third they looked very threatening. While I don’t think Chelsea played “anti-football”, I did think that they could have offered more going forward during the entire game rather than immediately after the Muller header.

Bayern’s goal could have occurred numerous times before Muller finally put the ball in the back of the net. Gomez’s finishing painted the picture of a nervous, anxious boy. Robben’s usual dangerous long shots were mainly skewed wide or blocked. Muller did well to get his header down but I do believe Cech could have done better. Shortly after, Chelsea was renewed in attack and did well getting forward.  Chelsea soon earned their first corner of the game on 88 minutes. Drogba powered his way in front of Boateng, who gave Didier a shove in the process, and rose to meet the in-swinging delivery from Mata and buried it in the top of Neuer’s net, a thunderous header to tie the game near the death. Chelsea would survive into extra time.

While Chelsea’s problems were tactical, Bayern’s resolve was slowly cracking. Was it due to the weeklong party building up to the Final? Many analysts and commentators stated how Chelsea had to step into the lion’s den yet it seemed Bayern were the team that was uneasy. The pressure of the Champions League Final on their home turf got to them. This was even more evident in extra time. Drogba, the man for the big occasion, almost left a permanent scar on his resume when he stupidly tackled Ribery from behind in the box conceding a penalty. It was a flashback to Barcelona and Chelsea surely couldn’t escape a penalty twice. Robben, the man notorious for cracking at the big moment, stepped up to take the penalty. Any shortcomings Cech had that allowed the header from Muller to whiz over his head were nullified as he stopped Robben’s low drive. The ball squirmed from under him slowly and he reached over to grab the ball. Chelsea didn’t need to be saved by the post this time. Nothing was going right for Bayern as they steadily plodded forward. This was highlighted when two of Bayern’s substitutes, Olic and Van Buyten, failed to connect with each other as Cech’s goal was gaping wide for Van Buyten to slot home Olic’s lay-off. The former did not continue his run and the ball dribbled past the goal and out.  Chelsea survived to penalties.

How Chelsea survived to penalties is a testament to their willpower and determination. Penalties would have to be taken at Bayern Munich’s end. In retrospect, this seemed to be the wrong decision for Bayern as it invited even more pressure onto its players. Lahm stepped up to take Bayern’s first penalty. The captain, and captain of Germany, coolly slotted his kick home even with Cech going the right way. Mata would be up first for Chelsea. He has taken penalties before yet Neuer is a giant in goal. He guessed the right way and saved Mata’s penalty. The Chelsea nation filled with dread as Moscow loomed in the back of their collective minds.

Gomez stepped up to take Bayern’s second. A man who had failed to produce all game finally did when he took a perfect penalty kick and put it in the corner. Cech went the right way again. It seemed that he was getting closer to saving one. David Luiz stepped up to take Chelsea’s second penalty and seemed to be standing on the halfway line. He took a tremendous run-up and made up for his miss against Genk. The hurt defender blazed his penalty past Neuer and had a few parting words for the Bayern fans behind the goal. It was a brilliant penalty from the young Brazilian. There was a delay before Bayern’s third penalty; apparently Neuer was unaware that he was to take the spot kick. Goalkeeper versus goalkeeper and Bayern’s got the upper-hand. Neuer slotted it home and yet Cech still guessed the right way. 

Chelsea’s third would be taken none other than the stand-in captain, Frank Lampard. Lamps had a subdued game due to his copious defensive duties but the result from the spot was never in doubt. Lampard stepped up and his kick whizzed past Neuer and into the back of the net. This time a Chelsea captain didn’t miss a penalty kick. The substitute Olic stepped up to take Bayern’s fourth. He took a direct line behind the ball and hooked the ball towards Cech’s left. Cech guessed left and easily palmed Olic’s kick away from goal. If Chelsea were to make their next kick they would pull even with Bayern in the shootout.

Ashley Cole stepped up to take Chelsea’s fourth. He had been brilliant all game and kept it up as he swept his penalty into the corner of Neuer’s goal. Chelsea had pulled back even with Bayern. Bastian Schweinsteiger, the winger turned deep-lying midfielder, crept up to take Bayern’s fifth and maybe final penalty if Chelsea were to miss. Questions had been raised earlier during extra time as it looked he had picked up an injury. He made his run-up, stuttered, and pushed his shot towards Cech’s left. Cech dived, got a hand to it, the ball hit the post and back out across goal. Chelsea’s European destiny was again in their hands.

On that rainy night in Moscow, John Terry had to take Chelsea’s fifth penalty due to Drogba being sent off for slapping Vidic. In Munich, however, John Terry had to watch as Didier Drogba stepped up to take the biggest penalty in Chelsea’s 107 year history. Rumors had been rife that Drogba might not be with Chelsea next season so the penalty could end up being his last act for Chelsea Football Club. He calmly placed the ball down and backed away taking his usual wide stance. Drogba scuffed his shot but it sailed toward the bottom left. Manuel Neuer dove to his left, turning his head to see Drogba’s spot kick sail into the back of his net. The giant Ivorian catapulted Chelsea to European glory. Didier was soon lost in a sea of his teammates’ bodies. The trophy that had long evaded the grasp of Chelsea, and a certain Russian billionaire, was finally going to live at Stamford Bridge. There was not a dry eye in Munich; Chelsea’s tears of joy and Bayern’s tears of heartbreak.

Chelsea barely offered anything going forward but their calmness under pressure and a helping hand from Lady Luck allowed them to emerge victorious. Chelsea’s “Old Guard” had finally captured the trophy they set out to win since Abramovich acquired the club in 2003. Bayern’s finishing was non-existent and they failed to deliver when the big moments arose. While many Chelsea fans were unremorseful towards knocking Barcelona out in the semi-finals, none can be mad at the effort Bayern put in that night. Chelsea has been there before and they finally exorcised the ghost from that tragic night in Moscow. There was no gloating from the Chelsea camp towards Bayern, unlike from a certain Spanish right back, because the Champions League Final turned out to be a perfect night in sports. You don’t necessarily have to have the best team to win but if you fight, work hard, and with a little luck you can do great things. This win should inspire the next crop of youngsters and show them that dreams do come true. Chelsea Football Club are Champions of Europe…a truth stranger than fiction.

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