May 20, 2012

The Holy Grail: How the worst season turned into the best?

It was all down to one penalty at the Allianz Arena. The thin line between bragging rights and keeping your mouth shut for the next season. A win and a loss. Down to a single penalty. As Drogba stepped on to take it, my mind flashed images of his days in the Chelsea jersey since his then record transfer...

Draw against Stoke
At the start of the season, it was least expected to be a successful one. Rather, I was expecting the younger lads to be given more exposure by the newly appointed Andre Villas Boas. He was a hardworking lad, no doubt, but one thing he couldn't do was to unite the players. The season started with a hard fought draw against Stoke, and that, precisely, was how Chelsea performed in the first half of the season.

Chelsea 2-1 City
Losing to Liverpool twice, a home loss to Arsenal and a string of draws put Chelsea 10 points off the league leaders Manchester City in early December. Chelsea started the Champions League brightly with convincing wins over Leverkusen and Genk, but lost track midway after draws against Valencia and Genk, and a last minute loss to Leverkusen. This left Chelsea needing a win (or a goalless draw) against Valencia to advance to the last 16. Chelsea won that match 3-0 and went on to defeat City 2-1 at home after coming from 1 goal down in the first minute, but that was the last good performance in a long time to come.

Meanwhile, Villas Boas had promoted certain players to his starting XI, most importantly Sturridge, who scored goals for fun. Mata, in addition, performed particularly well. Alex and Anelka were demoted to the reserve team and sent to train with them after handing in transfer requests, while Kalou found first team opportunities hard to come by.

That win against City started off a chain reaction of bad matches. After draws against Norwich and Fulham, Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, squandering up a 2-1 lead. The new year didn't bring any more joys for the club. After the departures of veterans Anelka and Alex, Chelsea ended up signing only Gary Cahill, Kevin De Bruyne and Lucas Piazon, the later two having no immediate impact on the first team.

Napoli 3-1 Chelsea
Meanwhile, Chelsea were drawn against Napoli in the last 16 of the Champions League. Napoli's three man defense had terrified City and literally knocked them out of the competition! The three man defense did not terrify Chelsea much, but even after taking the lead with Juan Mata, three goals by Napoli's fierce three-man attack ended all Champions League dreams for Chelsea. Or so I thought.

Abramovich had other things in mind. He sacked Villas Boas, even though he had been working really hard, sleeping in his office, to turn around the fortunes of the club. This really saddened me, prompting me to write an open letter to Abramovich. Assistant Manager Roberto Di Matteo (who was sacked as the West Brom manager just over a year ago) was promoted to interim manager, and that, my friends, seemed like a season end to me. Zola went on to support his ex teammate immediately saying Di Matteo's stubborn behaviour would lead to success. Oh boy, wasn't he right? It was just a fairytale from then on.

Chelsea 4-1 Napoli
Chelsea won the FA Cup replay against Birmingham city. But the most important win was against Napoli. Starting the game at Stamford Bridge with a 2 goal deficit, Chelsea smashed three goals past Napoli, but they managed to strike one. The game went to extra time, and Chelsea went on to clinch the tie in the dying moments of the game. A fascinating game indeed, with the old guard of Drogba, Lampard, Terry and Cole coming out on top!

Another notable revival was that of Salomon Kalou. The Ivorian would even fail to make the bench in AvB's times, came straight back to the starting XI in Di Matteo's case. He even played 85 minutes in the final.

Chelsea were drawn against Benfica and if they won, they would face the winners of the Barcelona v. AC Milan tie. Chelsea defeated Benfica, although not convincingly enough, with luck and a few refereeing decisions going in favour of Chelsea.

5-2 Thrashing of Tottenham
This saw the start of the most difficult time for Chelsea. Tottenham in FA semis, Barcelona at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal at the Emirates, Barcelona at Nou Camp, all in a matter of about 10 days. Chelsea played brightly against Tottenham, scoring five goals (one with the help of the linesman, though) and booking their place in the finals. Parking the bus at Stamford Bridge, Drogba scored of the only opportunity for Chelsea all night and won the game 1-0 for Chelsea. A relatively weaker team against Emirates somehow came off with a goalless draw, with Arsenal hitting the post on more than one occasion.

Torres scores against Barcelona
Then came the game at Nou Camp. Chelsea came down from 2 goals down, with John Terry red carded, to score twice to knock out the defending champions Barcelona outta the elite competition. However, there was a catch. Four players of Chelsea would miss the final with suspensions; Terry, Ramires, Ivanovic and Raul Merieles; all of whom would surely have started had they been available. Elsewhere, Bayern Munich defeated Real Madrid on penalties to set a date with Chelsea in their very own Allianz Arena.

Torres came good at the business end of the season with a hat trick against lowly QPR, which Chelsea won comfortably. In the build up to the final, Chelsea lost 2- 0 to Newcastle, with Papiss Cisse defying the laws of Physics with either goal, seriously hampering their top 4 hopes. Chelsea then defeated Liverpool 2-1 at Wembley, Drogba scoring again, to lift the FA Cup. Just three days later, with a reserve team, Chelsea lost 4-1 to the very same Liverpool. But that loss was forgotten pretty soon, as Chelsea won the last match in the Premier League against Blackburn 2-1, finishing sixth in the league.

Meanwhile, Bayern had already lost the league to Borussia Dortmund. Just a week before the all awaited final, Bayern were hammered 5-2 in the DFB Pokal final by Dortmund again, this time Lewandowski netting a hat trick.

It was touch and go for both of them, a race against time.
The much awaited final started with Chelsea fielding David Luiz and Gary Cahill at the centre of the defense, both of them having won the race against time to be fit for the same. 22-year old Ryan Bertrand, the deputy for Ashley Cole, was a surprise inclusion in the team as a left winger, making history as the first player to make his debut in the final. Chelsea started by parking bus, but with serious loopholes. But it was as if Chelsea's name had already been engraved in the trophy. Bayern missed a load of opportunities: Ribery, Robben, Schweinsteiger, Muller and the biggest culprit of all- Mario Gomez. Having scored 41 goals this season, he had a very poor show against Real and continued the same in this match.

Bertrand vs Lahm
With every passing minute, Chelsea seemed to grow in confidence. Bertrand's main target was to stop Lahm from getting forward, which he did quite well, but his occasional bursts were not enough for Chelsea to get a goal. He was finally subbed for Florent Malouda, who was also a doubt going into the match after suffering a knock against Blackburn.

Muller's goal
Bayern fiinally broke the deadlock after 82 minutes, Tomas Muller snatching at a free header after an error by Cole, who ironically, had been the best Chelsea player so far. The ball went in after hitting the bar right above the giant Cech. Believe me, he had no idea what he was doing, he just banged it in front of Cech, and it bounced over him. Bayern celebrated. Luck seemed to have run out for Chelsea. Commentators said it was all over for Chelsea. Another heartbreak was on the cards. United fans were happier than their Bayern counterparts on Twitter.

DROGBA Scores!
The whole season flashed in front of me. I thought of the twists and turns and how close we came. I thought of how City clinched the title in injury time, and wondered if Chelsea could do the same. Meanwhile, Luiz picked up a yellow for an unnecessary tackle on Robben, and Torres had come on for Kalou, bringing in with him a flair Chelsea had lacked the whole match. Van Buyten had come on for Muller, a change which would prove costly for the Bavarians.

Chelsea won a corner and Mata stepped up to take it. Lampard signaled Cech to remain where he was. The ball came to Drogba, as he lost Boateng, and BANG! The most powerful header I have ever seen! Neuer got his hands to it, but couldn't stop it from getting into the corner of the net. It was NOT luck. It was sheer CLASS! This took the game to extra time.

Cech saves the penalty.
Extra time started badly for Chelsea. Drogba fouled Ribery inside the penalty box. A totally unnecessary foul. Robben stepped in to take the penalty. He had scored against Real, but missed against Dortmund just a week or so before that. Cech, as usual stood like a towering giant, and dived the right way, and yes, he saved it. You just don't score against Cech in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Ribery limped off injured, to be replaced by Olic.

The remaining part of extra time was pretty much uneventful, which brought the game to penalties. Chelsea had lost the game on penalties in Moscow, with John Terry's slip being a painful memory in every Chelsea supporter's heart. Maybe this was the only way they could win; overcoming their demons in the process.

Lahm stepped on to take the penalty for Bayern and scored, whereas Mata missed the first. Luiz scored with his swinger taking a longer run up that Shoiab Akhtar and hitting the ball on the top right corner. Cole took a perfect penalty curling the ball into the net, and Neuer almost got to Lampard's shot. Almost. Meanwhile, Gomez and Neuer had scored for Bayern, while Olic and Schweinsteiger had missed. Cech had dived the right way for each of the 6 penalties he faced on the night.
The winning goal; Neuer can just look!

Drogba comes on to take the last. He knows a kick of the ball can engrave his name in the history books of Chelsea. He takes a run up as half of the Bayern Munich players look the other way. He doesn't hit the ball as well as he would've hoped, but it doesn't matter. Neuer dived the wrong way. Chelsea are the Champions! The one trophy that has eluded Roman Abramovich since he took over years ago, injecting millions for players and managers alike. Finally, the Holy Grail that Chelsea were after. Finally...

Bayern had 43 shots on goal, with 7 on target. Chelsea had 9, with 3 on target. Bayern had 20 corners as compared to Chelsea's ONE. Bayern had Batman and Robben, but Chelsea had the blessing of Ra's Al Ghul's League of Assassins, and the Good doesn't win always. Chelsea made the most of their luck, Bayern simply didn't.
Let the celebrations begin

David Luiz with his customary expresson
Luck had deserted Chelsea ever since Abramovich took over. Every Champions League, Chelsea would go down due to some refereeing error. The one that remains fresh in my memory even now is the semi final three years ago. However, this season, it seems all of that had changed. Everything went Chelsea's way! Every single thing! Maybe, this was destiny. After the last two matches, I have started believing in fate. After being completely outclassed in both matches, it was fate that steered Chelsea home. The Champions League trophy is coming to the Stamford Bridge!

No matter what anyone says, Chelsea are the champions! The Kings of Europe. And for the next year, Chelsea fans like me have got the bragging rights! Thank you for that, Di Matteo!

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