Champions League Soccer
Happy for the Blues: Why even Bayern Munich fans (and Chelsea Haters) canappreciate the Champions League Finals outcome
Resiliency, thy name is Chelsea.
For those who watched the Champions League Final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich eight days ago, it was a lesson in how a team with no business winning a match on paper can do so on the pitch. And in resiliency. And in the delightful unpredictability of soccer — or, as the Brits are so often fond of saying, “Football, bloody hell."
Qualifying for the tournament means prize money, more lucrative sponsorship opportunities and increased attractiveness to star players who want the CL spotlight.
The UEFA Champions League has become vitally important to European soccer clubs. English teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea have made qualifying very much a holy grail — qualifying for the tournament, which pits Europe’s top club teams against each other in a 32-team format taking place concurrent with their regular league seasons, means prize money, more lucrative sponsorship opportunities and increased attractiveness to star players who want the CL spotlight.
Winning (or keeping) Champions League status can help great teams become greater; losing it can hasten the plummeting of a top-tier team into a chasm of mediocrity.
Here’s what Chelsea was facing heading into the Champions League finals against Germany’s perennial power Bayern Munich:
1. Chelsea was decidedly the underdog team. Soccer website Caught Offside, in a promotional tie-in with betting site Bet365, gave the Blues 7-2 odds to win, whereas Bayern was a 5-6 favorite to win.
2. Because of controversial UEFA rules about yellow cards (and not so controversial ones about red cards) earned in prior matches, Chelsea was without the services of four key players, including winger Ramires (arguably the quickest and most creative of Chelsea’s midfielders), defensive midfielder Raul Meireles and fullback Branislav Ivanovic (important cogs in the lockdown defense machine Chelsea’s run all tournament), and captain John Terry (perhaps not the defender he once was, but still a key defender, and the captain).
3. To make it through to the finals, Chelsea had two taxing matches against Barcelona, regarded by many as the best club team in the world, with the best striker in the world, and a maddening-to-opponents style of play relying on possession-heavy, pass-happy ball movement. Pundits everywhere wondered how Chelsea could get past them.
4. To get past the round of 16, Chelsea faced Napoli, and lost the game in Napoli 3-1. To advance, Chelsea had to win by at least three goals in their home match with Napoli. (They did so, 4-1, winning in extra time — which was needed to break the 4-4 aggregate tie they’d achieved after 90 minutes of the London match.) (If you're fuzzy on what aggregate means, or why teams play home and away matches, go ahead and take a moment to review the Champions League tournament format.)
5. In addition to those games, Chelsea had a Premier League race in which they were still, up until the final few weeks, mathematically alive for a top four slot – which is how Premier League teams qualify for Champions League status.
6. Because they eventually were out of top four contention (ultimately finishing sixth), they had to win the finals to stay in the Champions League, supplanting the Premier League’s Number Four team through a UEFA rule that allows the winning team to defend its title.
7. While this was going on, Chelsea played additional games, due to their successful run in the FA Cup — a tournament involving multiple levels of English football teams. They beat Liverpool in the finals, which earned them bragging rights as FA Cup Champions, but did little else for the team’s fortunes.
8. Did I mention the manager situation? They had to replace beleaguered manager Andres Villas-Bollas in March — then just nine months into a three-year contract – replacing him with former Chelsea player Roberto di Matteo.
9. Did I mention Chelsea’d never won a Champions League Finals? And has only been in a finals in 2008? (Bayern Munich had won four and lost four CL Finals prior to the match eight days ago.)
10. Oh, and by pure chance/apparent destiny, the 2012 finals site was … Allianz Arena, in Munich – the home stadium of Bayern Munich.
The game itself was remarkably (and deceptively) statistically one-sided. After an early standstill — in which the highlight for American viewers was a camera lingering on a woman in the stands unabashedly picking her nose for a good fifteen seconds — Bayern came with shot after shot on goal, or, at least, in the relative direction thereof. Bayern ended with a 35-9 advantage in shots and a staggering 20-1 advantage in corner kicks.
It looked like Bayern had won the game on a tricky Thomas Muller header in the 83rd minute, but on Chelsea’s lone corner five minutes later, striker Didier Drogba (notoriously clutch in tournament finals) answered with a high-degree-of-difficulty header of his own.
At Frank, where I watched with a mix of casual Chelsea fans and more dedicated Bayern fans, seeing Drogba convert the game-winning PK (and of course it was Drogba) led to a collective sense of “Whoa, Chelsea just won that” bemusement and surprise.
The game went into extra time. Bayern should have won it then, as extra time started with an inadvertent, potential hero-to-goat foul by Drogba, which led to a Bayern PK — which Bayern captain Arjen Robben missed. The game was ultimately decided on penalty kicks.
Despite the handwringing over settling ties in this way, including FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s just-announced plea for an alternative to this “tragedy” — it made for a highly dramatic finish worth watching.
At Frank, where I watched with a mix of casual Chelsea fans and more dedicated Bayern fans, seeing Drogba convert the game-winning PK (and of course it was Drogba) led to a collective sense of “Whoa, Chelsea just won that” bemusement and surprise. I can only imagine the scene at Cuatros, claimed by both Chelsea and Arsenal fans in Austin as home base, though Arsenal fans on the Austin Gooners Facebook page pretty much said, “Uh, let’s not hang around the Chelsea fans for this one either way.”
It’s more than a little bittersweet — but indicative of sports as business — that Chelsea’s about to break up, or at least change its composition, for next season’s wild ride.
We’re entering what should be an even more tumultuous off-season than usual for multiple teams. For Chelsea, it starts with uncertainty about whether di Matteo will stay on as Chelsea manager (which fans and players are, as you might expect, quite in favor of).
Drogba’s already on his way out, reportedly to Chinese team Shanghai Shenhua, for a Krusty the Clown-style, they-drove-a-truckload-of-money-up-to-my-house deal. This looks like an opportunity for Chelsea’s forgotten striker, the possibly-fading Fernando Torres, to cheer up and be more utilized, though Chelsea’s rumored to have a deal about sewn up with Brazilian striker Hulk (yes, as in Hulk Smash) and some other big-name signings in the works. This includes Belgian scoring machine Eden Hazard, who is orchestrating his own version of LeBron James’ “The Decision” (and sure to be as beloved by rival teams' fans at its conclusion) with all four Premier League Champions League qualifiers.
But Chelsea — on the heels of the just-finished, still-celebrated, epic end-of-days in the Premier League — has contributed mightily to giving soccer its Best Month Ever. “Football, bloody hell” has perhaps never been repeated more cheerfully by more people.
(Update May 29: Hazard announced on Monday night that he's chosen Chelsea.)