With no Champions League final to entertain us in this odd year, we look back at an English side’s arguably greatest final win, against all odds, back in 2012 with the help of some newspaper headlines from the final and build-up.
From the moment Roman Abramovich took the reins in 2003, Chelsea football club has certainly had no shortage of success; indeed, the Stamford Bridge trophy cabinet has seen more additions since the Russian’s arrival than in the entire century beforehand. But, up to 2012, the most illustrious piece of silverware, the UEFA Champions League, was one that had continually eluded them. With a team of stars now fading into twilight, many viewed the 2011/12 competition as its last shot at Europe’s biggest prize.
Chelsea’s pedigree in Europe was unquestionable, but their reputation wasn’t that of winners, but of nearly men. Having reached the knockout stages of the Champions League in all of the previous eight campaigns, the Blues had lost a final on penalties, and been eliminated in the semis on no less than four occasions, one again on penalties, and two under controversial circumstances; firstly thanks to Luis Garcia’s infamous “ghost goal” for Liverpool in 2005, and four years later to Andres Iniesta’s 93rd-minute decider, on a night where the referee turned down four Chelsea penalty appeals, and seemed to ignore a Barcelona handball in the build-up to their goal. Both Liverpool and Barcelona had gone on to lift the trophy. One might have been forgiven for questioning whether fate was conspiring against the Londoners.
If Chelsea’s recent European record made them underdogs by default, the position was multiplied tenfold by their route to the 2012 Champions League final. When the club sacked manager André Villas-Boas on March 4th, the Blues’ season was debilitated: the side lay fifth in the league (eighteen points behind the leaders) and were on the brink of a Champions League exit following a lacklustre 3-1 defeat in Naples.
“Blue Road to Munich”
This was what the newspapers at the time called the remarkable journey, all documented here. The second leg against the Italians was only caretaker boss Roberto Di Matteo’s third game in charge. Against the odds, Chelsea fought back and won the exhilarating tie 5-4 on aggregate after extra time. After a more straight-forward conquering of Benfica in the quarters, Chelsea would find themselves in a semi-final matchup with old foes Barcelona, the reigning champions.
After a narrow 1-0 win for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge (during which Barcelona hit the woodwork twice), the tie shifted to the Nou Camp. After 40 minutes, Chelsea’s hopes were left hanging in the balance once more: 2-0 behind, and down to 10 men following the dismissal of captain John Terry. But out of nothing, a Ramires breakaway, and classy finish to boot, gave the Blues a glimmer of hope on the stroke of half-time. Miraculously, they would somehow hang on, surviving a missed penalty from Leo Messi in the process, before Fernando Torres broke free and sealed the win in injury time. On to Munich for the final.
After such a bumpy road to get there, the law of averages would suggest that Chelsea may have been awarded some sort of advantage going into the final. In fact, the opposite was true, with the game itself scheduled to be played in Munich’s Allianz Arena, home of – you’ve guessed it – their opponents, Bayern Munich. The inexperienced Di Matteo would have to mastermind a victory not only without his captain, but against a team with home advantage.
The Italian, though, may have found some solace in the history books; the last time a team had home advantage in a European Cup final (Roma in 1984) they had lost on penalties to English opposition, having played out a 1-1 draw. History certainly does have an incredible way of repeating itself.
The 2012 final was, for the first 80 minutes at least, by no means a thriller; Bayern, predictably, had the better of the possession and the chances, but failed to make their domination count. That is, until seven minutes from the end, when a Thomas Muller header looped over Petr Cech and into the Chelsea net. But for a Chelsea team that had by now learned to never give up hope, there was still to be one last throw of the dice.
In the 88th minute, Chelsea won a corner, their very first of the game (Bayern, by contrast, had had no less than twenty). Juan Mata curled the ball in, and up leapt Didier Drogba, so often the hero on the biggest of occasions, to head the ball past Manuel Neuer and level the score. Just like 1984, the match would finish 1-1 and end in penalties. After falling behind in the shootout when Mata missed his spot-kick, the Blues yet again clawed themselves back, with Cech saving from Ivica Olic and then Bastian Schweinsteiger. The onus to deal the final blow was fittingly on Drogba. The Ivorian, as per usual, made no mistake.
“Di Kings of Europe”
The winning penalty would prove to be Drogba’s last kick for Chelsea (at least before his brief return two years later). For many, it was the end of an era for both the club and its most successful group of players, but one that, thanks to this long-awaited Champions League victory, ended with, as the Sunday Mirror put it, a “football dream”.