The UEFA Champions League Final is over, and I am still trying to write off the Chelsea Blues.
After all, CFC had been done since about the middle of February.
At the time, Chelsea was going absolutely nowhere and headed for its worst domestic league finish since 2001-02 and would not qualify for the 2012-13 Champions League unless they earned an automatic bid by somehow winning the 2011-12 UCL Tournament.
And that was not going to happen because CFC had just been pasted 3-1 by Napoli in the first leg of the UCL round of 16.
That’s right, Chelsea was being done in by a Texas Rangers catcher.
After a listless 1-nil loss away at West Brom in which Chelsea showed zero intensity, owner Roman Abramovich had seen enough and fired manager Andre-Villas Boas, replacing him with 41-year-old Roberto Di Matteo on an interim basis through the rest of the season – most likely after Tony LaRussa, Tom Coughlin, and Tom Izzo all turned down the opportunity. Di Matteo’s marching orders as caretaker manager were simple – salvage something, anything, out of the rest of the season. At the very worst, cutting his teeth for three months at Chelsea was going to serve Di Matteo well whenever an opening at Fulham, Stoke City, or Portland were to ever open up somewhere down the road.
Meanwhile, in the long term, the remainder of the season was to serve as an opportunity for CFC to do some inventory before throwing more big-time cash on another big-name manager and more big-name players. It’s how elitist teams in EPL football go about business, throw (hopefully) good money after bad money – the very same formula that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers get right eventually.
With the interim manager now at the helm, Chelsea had an almost impossible mountain to climb in the second leg against Napoli, being down by that 3-1 aggregate score. With Manchester United, Manchester City, and Arsenal already out of the European competition, a Chelsea loss would complete the EPL’s dismal (B1G Ten/bowl season-like) performance in this year’s Champions League and bring into question whether the top flight of English football is what its cracked up to be.
Except – Chelsea stormed back in that second leg v. Napoli at home at Stamford Bridge. The Blues won the second leg 3-1, then scored in extra time to win the tie on aggregate 5-4. That earned CFC a trip to the quarter-finals, where they took care of business v. “mid-major” Benfica (Portugal). That ultimately earned Chelsea a semi-final date v. FC Barcelona.
The comeback v. Napoli was one thing, one can see a meddling Serie A side suddenly getting a deer in the headlights look at Stamford Bridge. The Barcelona XI would be something else altogether – the best team in perhaps all the world, period – and the best player on the planet in Lionel Messi who had already scored five goals in an ealier UCL match. However, Chelsea came through with a 1-nil win in the first leg, more importantly not conceding an away goal in the process. That would mean a 2-1 or 3-2 loss at Barcelona would get Chelsea to the Final.
Except – Chelsea concedes two first half goals and then loses controversial center back John Terry to a red card. Now CFC was going to somehow have to find a way to score, and somehow not allow another tally to Barcelona while playing 10 v. 11.
But Chelsea scores on Barca just before halftime, what I call the “1.5 goal” that would give the Blues the away-goal tie-breaker. Now they just had to somehow keep Barca off the board for 45 minutes. The entire second-half was seemingly played in Chelsea territory and it only seemed a matter of time before Barcelona scored. But that goal never came, and Chelsea scored in the waning minutes in what basically amounted to an empty-net goal by Fernando Torres, in the process breaking a goalless drought that had reached Albert Pujols/L.A. Angels proportions.
So Chelsea earned a slot in the Champions League Final, and domestically also wound up winning the FA Cup title over Liverpool. Suddenly it wasn’t such a bad year at Stamford Bridge after all, FA Cup trophy/UCL final. But that’s as far as this road was going to go, as the opponent in the Champions League Final was Bayern Munich, and the “neutral site” for the UCL Final was…Bayern Munich Stadium. The day before the final, Accuscore gave Bayern Munchen a 70% chance of winning. The script said this was going to be one huge Bavarian party, and the London-based opposition would only be token resistance.
And for the first 83 minutes, Bayern Munich was the better side, it had held 56% of the possession and had 17 corner kicks to Chelsea’s none. Only problem, none of this domination had resulted in a goal for the German side. Finally, in the 83rd minute, Thomas Muller would score, and that no doubt would be your dagger – right through the heart of West London.
What PBP man Martin Tyler referred to as a “premature celebration” by Bayern Munich players, as well as a premature celebration of Bayern Munich fans, a premature celebration for all of Bavaria, and a premature celebration by fans of Tottenham Hotspur (who needed a Chelsea loss for their fourth-place finish to be good enough to get in the 2012-13 UCL) lasted all of five minutes when Chelsea was finally awarded its first corner of the match. Where Munich failed on 17 attempts, Chelsea got right on its first. Veteran forward Didier Drogba, in what is widely believed to be his final game for Chelsea, headed it home to level the match just minutes from time. Yes, premature celebration can turn out to be a bummer
But it finally appeared that Chelsea finally had an unsurvivable situation for real when Drogba fouled Franck Ribery inside the penalty area early in extra time. There was no doubt inside the arena that Arjen Robben would drive the ensuing spot kick past former teammate Petr Cech (seen here in 2006) and his headgear, a gimmick that he has gone with ever since suffering a skull fracture after getting run over in a game several years ago. (Soccer needs Vin Scully just so he could re-set that story). However, Robben got robbed by Cech, and the clock eventually drained down forcing penalty kicks, which Chelsea does not have a good history of performing well in, dating from its 2008 UCL Final loss to Manchester United.
In the most pressure-packed situation in any sport, Munich converts its first three penalties while Chelsea missed one, which left Munich with a magic number of two going into the “bottom of the third” of five PKs, any combination of Munich converted penalties and Chelsea misses would finally give the German side the trophy that have been so inevitable for the preceding three hours.
Except, Frank Lampard converts. Then Ivaca Olic is stopped by Cech. OK, Ashley Cole is due to blow it — nope he scores. Then Bastian Schweinsteiger staggers on his approach and his penalty hits the post. Had it not, Cech, who guessed the right side on all five PKs, would have likely had it anyways. Finally Chelsea’s Drogba steps up and calmly delivers the game-winner.
Chelsea is officially the guy at the poker table you cannot get rid of. They kept going all in, having no chance of staying alive. They kept hitting the river card and eventually wound up with all of everyone’s chips. The final U.S. TV numbers of the climax of an incredible European soccer season should be absolutely massive, this on the heels of last weeks Survival Sunday and the huge number ESPN drew for Man United/Man City a few weeks back.
I missed the UCL Final live as I was part of the huge Midwest Sports Fans editors event at the Milwaukee Brewers game, but there were fans in Bayern Munich gear to be found in Miller Park. And there were plenty of followers of the UCL proceedings on social media. A good example was the Twitter account of OU Sooners receiver Kenny Stills, who has quickly become a fan. Then I get home, and Ari Kaufman (who usually isn’t into the game for being “Un-American”) actually sends me a link of a column of someone saying why he likes soccer better than American football.
And screw Jim Rome. I know Jim Rome hates soccer. Nobody needs Jim Rome to accept soccer. I don’t even want Jim Rome to like soccer – but last time I checked he’s just a smart-ass sports commentator and doesn’t decide what I (or anyone) personally wants to follow.
But its amazing how many people I’ve seen come on board in following this great game in the past 2+ years.
These analogies I keep hearing related to how a major competition is decided on penalty kicks are frustrating (i.e. what if extra innings of the World Series was decided by a home run hitting contest?). Here are some stats. The typical midfielder in soccer covers 9,000+ meters in a regulation 90-minute match – equate that to doing a near-10K run, now project that over 120 minutes, and only three substitutions allowed entire match (as opposed to constant subs in basketball, hockey, etc.).
Soccer is the most physically demanding sport fitness-wise, period. The players don’t have more than 120 minutes to give fitness-wise. The two occurrences of players collapsing during the season (Fabrice Muamba somehow survived) also speaks to the cardiovascular demands of the game. Outside of “replaying” the game (which had traditionally been done in the FA Cup), there are really no other solutions when deciding a game on one occasion.
If you’re not on board yet, check out Euro 2012 during the month of June and also the U.S. Women’s National Team at the Summer Olympics. Yes, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo can’t get back on the pitch soon enough. Chelsea will also be playing a portion of its pre-season schedule in the States, including a July 18th match v. Seattle Sounders and another “friendly” scheduled for Yankee Stadium. There will also be another exhibition match at Fenway Park, this time featuring Liverpool v. AS Roma.
You have to dig the beautiful game and its 45+ minutes of commercial-free action, something the NBA Playoffs and other sports cannot say.