Five storylines for Chelsea in the Champions League final v. Bayern
Chelsea will be without four players, including John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic
Following a storied career, Didier Drogba could play his final game for Chelsea
For all the money Chelsea spends, it made the final behind an interim head coach
|This week, the SI soccer podcast crew presents a special Champions League podcast ahead of the Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich game this Saturday, May 19. The crew is joined in studio by guest Jimmy Conrad, and all discuss their expectations and predictions for the upcoming final.|
Heading into Saturday's Champions League final against Bayern Munich, here are five storylines to watch for Chelsea.
1. Chelsea is confronting the ghosts of its past. More than any team of the past decade, Chelsea has had a tough go when it comes to Champions League eliminations. It was knocked out on a goal from Liverpool's Luis Garcia in 2005 (coach Jose Mourinho still insists it didn't cross the line, calling it 'a ghost goal'). It was defeated in penalty shootouts (which is cruel, but not unlucky) in the 2007 semifinal to Liverpool and the 2008 final to Manchester United, respectively. In 2010, referee Tom Henning Ovrebro ignored four decent penalty claims before Andres Iniesta scored a late equalizer to send Barcelona into the final on away goals. This tournament is especially meaningful to owner Roman Abramovich -- and every elimination cuts a little bit deeper.
2. How will it cope with its suspended quartet? Between Chelsea and Bayern, seven players are suspended for the Champions League final. That makes it simple: the team that copes best without its regular starters should win. As Jonathan Wilson points out in this tactical analysis, the problem for Chelsea is that two of its outstanding performers this season are out: Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic. Ramires has been the unsung hero of Chelsea's campaign, and saved his strongest effort for European nights. It was his run and cross that set up Didier Drogba for Chelsea's winner in the semifinal first-leg against Barcelona and his counter-attacking away goal that changed the tie's complexion at Camp Nou. Borussia Dortmund showed last weekend that Bayern can be picked off on the counter, but without Ramires, who can make the necessary fast transitions?
Ivanovic has been solid at right back, and could have replaced captain John Terry, also suspended, in the middle. He also has a habit of scoring in big games. Raul Meireles also won't play. So instead of Ramires, Meireles, Terry and Ivanovic, Chelsea could start with Kalou, Essien, Cahill and Bosingwa. Which quartet would you rather face?
3. Is this Didier Drogba's final farewell? Former U.S. international Jimmy Conrad may have been harsh this week when he told SI.com's Champions League roundtable that all players experience a bump in performance before their contract is due to expire. But Drogba poses a different case: he's unlikely to accept Chelsea's one-year extension as he wants a longer deal elsewhere, possibly even in China. Given that he has destroyed the defenses of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool (in FA Cup semifinal and final) and Barcelona (home and away) in recent weeks, that development seems like a terrible waste. In eight years at Chelsea, Drogba has scored 33 goals in 65 European matches, but he has yet to win the Champions League. In 2008, he was sent off in the final for raising a hand to Nemanja Vidic's face (and was unable to take a penalty in the shootout), and in 2010, after Chelsea's controversial loss to Barcelona, he received a three-match UEFA ban after shouting into a TV camera that the result was "a f***ing disgrace."
Drogba has a mixed record in finals this year. He scored the winner in the FA Cup final -- and has now scored in a record four finals -- but he missed a late penalty in the African Cup of Nations in January and his Ivory Coast team went on to lose in a shootout to Zambia. Drogba is Chelsea's biggest threat, and it will miss his power and goals when he's gone. As assistant coach Eddie Newton told the Daily Mail: "Didier's a very charismatic figure, he reminds me of Patrick Vieira or Roy Keane, the great leaders, the ones who knew how to step up to a big game. Didier is like that -- he knows when it matters."
4. Who's in charge -- and does it even matter? The last time Chelsea reached this stage of the Champions League in 2008, it had another interim coach in charge: Avram Grant. Back then, Jose Mourinho was dismissed after allegedly falling out with John Terry, just as Andre Villas Boas left Chelsea after his fateful decision to leave out Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard from the Round of 16 tie at Napoli. Grant and Di Matteo's first task was to get the senior players in their corner, and you can sense the fragile truce forged in the current Chelsea dressing room.
For all the millions that Abramovich has spent on coaches -- The Sun calculated that he had paid more than ú75m on hiring and firing coaches and their backroom staff in the last nine years -- the two most successful were only short-term appointments.
5. What happens after the final? A loss would deal a double blow to Chelsea: Not only would it miss out on the Holy Grail so coveted by Abramovich, but it would also mean no Champions League football for the club next season. Its sixth-place Premier League finish is the lowest of any Champions League finalist in history, but as Petr Cech admitted this week, "Some bizarre things have happened this season." That's especially true in Europe, where Di Matteo had some luck go his way.
To wit: Benfica captain Maxi Perreira was sent off early in the second half at Stamford Bridge, and a late chance to knock out Chelsea was then awarded to inexperienced substitute Nelson Oliveira, who missed. Barcelona also hit the post four times in its semifinal, while Lionel Messi missed his fourth penalty of the season.
Winning the final would mean that Chelsea goes straight to the group stage of next season's competition (fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur would be the unlucky side to forgo its place), but what would happen to Di Matteo? The Italian seems certain to step aside no matter what the result is, though -- following his success -- he can expect a decent job elsewhere. The newcomer will face many of the same challenges that Andre Villas-Boas struggled with: seeing off the old guard, reducing the power of the senior players and introducing a more attractive style of play.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.