Europe: 2012 Champions League final preview
It may not be the “dream final” that the majority of the world’s football fans had craved but for tonight’s UEFA Champions League final opponents, FC Bayern München and Chelsea FC, the culmination of their own dream is so near. FC Bayern, playing in their home stadium tonight, can join the European elite by winning the competition for the fifth time to rank alongside great names such as Real Madrid CF, AC Milan and Liverpool FC. Chelsea, on the other hand, are desperate to claim a maiden title in this competition, especially as their only other final appearance ended in heartache when losing the 2008 final to Manchester United on penalties.
FC Bayern’s European pedigree is without question. Their first continental title came in 1967 when defeating Scottish giants Glasgow Rangers in the Cup Winners’ Cup. The club’s heyday came in the mid-1970’s when the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Sepp Maier helped the club win three European Cups in a row from 1974-76. The Münchener then became only the fourth club ever to have all three European titles in the trophy cabinet when defeating Girondins de Bordeaux in the 1996 UEFA Cup (the other clubs are Juventus FC, Ajax Amsterdam and FC Barcelona). The Bavarians’ most recent European triumph came in 2001 when a nervy UEFA Champions League final against Valencia CF had to be settled on penalties following a 1-1 draw in Milan’s San Siro stadium.
Chelsea’s European success came on the back of two victories in the Cup Winners’ Cup but their regular participation in the UEFA Champions League over the last decade has ensured that they are now regarded as one of the game’s heavyweights despite the lack of success in the main competition. Chelsea’s first Cup Winners’ Cup triumph came in 1971 when they needed extra-time to defeat Real Madrid whilst the second title came at the hands of VfB Stuttgart in the penultimate version of that competition in 1998. As well as the 2008 final, Chelsea have appeared in five Champions League semi-finals in the last decade but if the Stamford Bridge side are to finally get their hands on “Old Big Ears” then this is arguably their greatest opportunity to do so.
FC Bayern have been one of the strongest teams in this season’s competition. The Germans finished top of what was arguably the toughest group in the tournament, finishing above Napoli SSC, Manchester City and Villarreal CF. After easily disposing of Swiss champions FC Basel 1893 in the Round of 16, Bayern reached the final by virtue of eliminating Olympique Marseille and Real Madrid in the latter stages. Chelsea, on the other hand, have often been on the back foot this season. The Londoners, following a Matchday 5 defeat away at Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the group stage, were on the cusp of elimination only for a Matchday 6 victory at home to Valencia CF to save their season. In the knockout rounds Chelsea saw a change of coach midway through their Round of 16 tie against Napoli SSC in which an Andre Villas-Boas led team crashed to a 3-1 first leg defeat but turned it around under the tutelage of Roberto di Matteo when winning the return fixture 4-1 at Stamford Bridge. The Italian has continued to work his magic with subsequent victories over SL Benfica in the quarter-finals and, most famously, over defending champions FC Barcelona in the semis.
After claiming their places in the UEFA Champions League final both teams have completed their domestic campaigns. FC Bayern, normally the dominant force in the Bundesliga, had to be content with second place whilst watching Borussia Dortmund win their second consecutive championship. If that weren’t enough Dortmund thrashed Bayern 5-2 in last weekend’s German Cup final to leave the latter empty-handed domestically for a second successive year. Chelsea, following a poor start, did finish the English football season by claiming the FA Cup for the fourth time in six years when defeating Liverpool FC 2-1 in the final. However Chelsea could only finish sixth in the Premier League meaning that qualification for next season’s Champions League hinges on the result of tonight’s final. Win and Chelsea will displace Tottenham Hotspur as England’s fourth representative next season, but lose and Chelsea will end up in the Europa League.
Much attention has been placed before tonight’s final on those who will be absent, most prominent among them being the Chelsea captain John Terry. Following a stupid off-the-ball attack on Barcelona’s Alexis Sánchez in the semi-final, Terry must sit it out tonight although UEFA have given him permission to lift the Champions League trophy as winning captain should Chelsea prove successful. Terry, along with Ramires, Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanović, are all suspended for Chelsea whilst FC Bayern must play without the services of David Alaba, Luiz Gustavo and Holger Badstuber. Both sides, though, possess many potential match winners with FC Bayern, in particular, well equipped in this area. The Germans’ front five of Mario Gómez, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Thomas Müller and Toni Kroos have scored an impressive 94 goals between them this season. The Londoners’ main threat comes from Didier Drogba who has scored eight goals in as many cup finals in his time at Chelsea and was instrumental in his team’s success against Barcelona. Frank Lampard is also a dangerous player, whether it is from open play or from a set-piece, and he is desperate to bring the big one to Stamford Bridge as it is the only major trophy missing from his collection. If Fernando Torres is in one of his big game moods then there is every chance that he can also add to his collection of big game medals alongside those he has won with the Spanish national team.
Although both sides have a very good chance to win the trophy it is FC Bayern who will go into the match as favourites due to their home advantage. Before their 2001 victory over Valencia, Bayern fans held up a banner which read “heute ist ein guter Tag, um Geschichte zu schreiben” (“Today is a good day to write history”). Will it be they who write another chapter into their glorious history or will Chelsea upset the odds once more and write an entirely new chapter of their own? It should prove to be a fascinating final….