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Chelsea, take a bow!

Last night, I witnessed a sporting spectacle. Chelsea football club, consistent in Europe over the last decade but perennial underachievers, finally fulfilled their dream of winning the UEFA Champions League, and by doing so reached the pinnacle of European club football. Legends were made, ghosts of past failures exorcised, fading stars of the old guard went out in one spectacular bang. And one man’s ruthless ambition was finally realized. It was a glorious European night, and for most part, Bayern Munich, playing at home at the Allianz Arena, did most of the talking on the pitch.

I feel for Bayern Munich, they were the overwhelming favourite in the build-up to this Champions League final. Playing at home was dubbed as the biggest advantage in their favour, and they almost made it count. They had the lion’s share of possession, controlled the pace of the game, and ran Chelsea ragged all over the pitch. Ribery, Gomez, Mueller, and Robben, especially, were a constant threat for the Chelsea defence. It was only a matter of time before the inevitable first goal, such was the Germans’ dominance of the game.

To their credit, Chelsea defended beautifully, Ashley Cole putting in a stellar performance on the wing, David Luiz and Gary Cahill coped brilliantly in Terry’s absence, and between the posts Cech was looming large, difficult to get past, denying Bayern single-handedly on several occasions. Cech was instrumental in ensuring Chelsea won their first ever Champions League crown.

But there was no stopping Bayern Munich, firing on all cylinders, throwing everything they had at Cech’s goal. And when it looked like one goal would be enough to seal the game’s fate, Thomas Mueller’s header finally broke through Cech’s defenses. Pandemonium erupted in the red half of Allianz Arena, as the partisan crowd sensed their team’s victory. Chelsea’s shoulders slumped, left to reflect in their darkest hour four years ago in Moscow, their only previous Champions League final fixture which ended in defeat.

This is where it gets really exciting (for a neutral like me). Against the run of play, Didier Drogba hammered home a header past Manuel Neuer’s giant hands in the opposite goal to throw Chelsea a lifeline in the dying moments of the game. Against all odds, undeserved, but with dogged determination, Chelsea equalized. Bayern Munich players were shell-shocked, their supporters struck dumb by what Drogba had just conjured. They had every right to feel that way because Chelsea were absolutely horrible till that point.

On to extra time, Drogba quickly turned from hero to villain for stupidly tripping Ribery inside the penalty box, a mindless tackle from behind. Bayern earned an unlikely penalty, with that a chance to win the game. But Arjen Robben, a former Chelsea player, had his penalty saved by the safe hands of Petr Cech. The effect inside the stadium was astounding. Suddenly, Bayern Munich started feeling nervous for the first time, for try as much they did Chelsea refused to give in. On the other hand, Chelsea’s players seemed uplifted by Bayern’s misery, buyoed by Cech’s heroics they found reserve energy to continue their battle where Bayern were clearly struggling to keep pace with the game. There was a definite shift in momentum.

As fate would have it, the game dragged on to the penalties. It seemed Chelsea had to exorcise their demons of Moscow if they were to be crowned European champions. Mata missed the only penalty from Chelsea’s lineup, whereas Olic and Schweinsteiger choked for Bayern, both brilliantly saved by Petr Cech. And as John Terry’s ill-fated slip that guided his penalty onto the right post against Manchester United in Moscow back in 2008, so would Schweinsteiger — the final kick taker in Bayern’s lineup, just like John Terry four years ago — stop on his way and eventually find the post blocking his way to glory (it got the faintest of touch from Cech before it hit the post). Hero against Real Madrid in the semi-final, Schweinsteiger was inconsolable from the moment of his mishap. Football can be so cruel sometimes.

Chelsea’s tryst with destiny was finally fulfilled when Didier Drogba — the man who kept them in the game with his equalizer — stepped up and coolly slotted his penalty into the bottom corner of the goal, sending Neuer the wrong way. From villain four years ago for getting sent off for slapping United’s Vidic in the final of 2008, Drogba instantly wrote his name in the legends of the game, and Chelsea football club, for striking the winning shot that sent West London into uncontrolled ecstasy. It may well have been his last kick as a Chelsea player, we will have to wait and see — if it turns out so, what a way to leave a football club! On top of the world! A fascinating final, one that finally brought Chelsea redemption. Money can’t buy the sights, the scenes, the memories of that memorable night.

Chelsea’s season has been epitomized by two things: Roberto Di Matteo’s appointment as interim manager (after Andres Villas-Boas was sacked in February) and Chelsea’s old guard — Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Cole, and everyone in the squad assembled by Jose Mourinho — and their desire, determination and belief to go out on a high. As it turns out, this Champions League final success may well be the last hurrah for a lot of ageing stars in Chelsea’s team.

Oh, and yes, I still feel this Di Matteo fella has done some sort of deal with the Devil. How else would you describe Chelsea’s roller-coaster season?

Originally published: May 20, 2012

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