This is it. The biggest soccer game of the year kicks off Saturday, live on FOX (2 p.m. ET), as German giant Bayern Munich takes on English superpower Chelsea.
Bayern Munich is attempting to do what never has been done — win a Champions League final as host. It is a spectacularly unlikely occurrence: The final venues are preselected at least a year in advance, and this is only the fourth time in history a team will descend upon its own stadium for the final.
“It was our dream to make it to the final and here we are," Bayern captain Philipp Lahm told reporters Friday. “I was born in Munich, I grew up in Munich and I joined Bayern at the age of 11, so this is definitely my home. When you look ’round the city, everybody is happy — you can feel the anticipation.”
That anticipation is well-warranted: The Champions League is more than just a fabulously rich prize — it is nothing less than the pinnacle of European sport. It is what the World Series is to baseball and the Masters is to golf. It is the dream of every soccer player around the world to someday hoist the Champions League trophy. Only the World Cup exceeds this tournament in global importance.
Few expected these two teams to be lining up. Back in September, when this whole thing kicked off, Chelsea was transitioning to a new coach and was weighed down by an aging squad; Bayern was good, but second best in the German league to Borussia Dortmund. The teams most fans thought would battle it out in May were superpowers Barcelona and Real Madrid. Frankly, the prospect of that massive derby, an “el gran clasico” blown up on steroids, had folks salivating, hoping that titanic clash could decide Europe’s biggest prize.
Not this year. Chelsea and Bayern knocked those two Spanish giants out of the brackets to get here, in four of the greatest games in Champions League history. Bayern KO’d Real Madrid on penalty kicks after a six-goal, two-leg battle royale. Can anyone forget Bastian Schweinsteiger sinking the decisive kick and then ripping off his shirt and racing toward the center of the field, screaming to the heavens?
The Chelsea Blues held off Barcelona in England with an all-hands-on-deck defensive show, and then overcame John Terry’s ejection at Camp Nou to win it. Fernando Torres’ brilliant last-minute race to the net didn’t win the game, but it was about as euphoric a goal as you will ever see in this sport.
Bayern enter this game as the favorite: It has a huge advantage by playing at home and, in addition, it is loaded with talent. Americans have to know Holland’s Arjen Robben, Germany’s Lahm and France’s Franck Ribery from past World Cups.
Yet while known for its skill on the field, Bayern is also notorious for being bizarrely self-destructive. Ribery and Robben form one of the more potent attacking partnerships in the game, nicknamed “Robbery” by Bayern’s fanatical supporters. They are also oil and water: Ribery slugged Robben during halftime of their semifinal leg against Real Madrid over a free kick, and Robben has engaged in skirmishes with Ribery and several other players during his career.
Bayern’s key is Schweinsteiger, master of the engine room. When he is on the field, Bayern wingers are able to race up the flanks, and their forwards always get the ball at their feet at a dead run. Mario Gomez is often the intended recipient; he is the tournament’s second highest scorer this year, surpassed only by the great Lionel Messi.
Chelsea has written the revival tale of the year, overcoming a dismal league season and the canning of coach Andre Villas-Boas. The Blues have scraped and clawed their way into this final, and they have become lovable underdogs in the process. But they are also obsessed with this trophy — they’ve never won it — and are looking to make amends for their defeat at this stage in 2008, when they were downed on penalty kicks by Manchester United.
"We have good and bad memories of Moscow, but the main memory is the defeat,” Frank Lampard told reporters Friday. “It’s taken us a long time to get back, but the belief is there in the dressing room and only if we win will that be reprieved."
Didier Drogba, the hero of Chelsea’s win over Barcelona, struck a note of defiance to those surprised at the team’s place in the final, saying, “We deserve to be here. No one expected us to be here at the start of the season, but we’ve done everything to be here and now we’re going to do everything to win it.”
Several key players will be banished to the stands after picking up cards in the semifinals. Chelsea will be missing a heavy flank with Terry, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic sitting out. Three other players — Gary Cahill, David Luiz and Florent Malouda — are struggling with injuries, though all are expected to make the game-day roster.
In light of those seated, key for the Blues will be midfield control: Without Ramires and Meireles, they lack legs; without Terry they lack organization and experience. A lot is going to be placed on John Obi Mikel’s shoulders Saturday, and it would not be shocking if Chelsea tries to strangle the game and wait for opportunities on counters.
Bayern has holes of its own: David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo are all out because of cards, weakening what is already a suspicious back line. Manuel Neuer is an unquestionably great keeper, but Jerome Boateng and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk are going to be tested by Juan Mata and Drogba when they get forward, and both those defenders can be beat.
On the sidelines, you have to give Roberto Di Matteo tremendous credit. He remains Chelsea’s interim coach and, even if he wins this Cup, he’s not expected to be awarded the gig full time. Why is anyone’s guess: Under him, the Blues have played inspired soccer, won the big games and shown a tactical awareness that was absent for large stretches of the year. He will get the game plan right again Saturday, and it will be up to Bayern to match him.
His touchline rival Jupp Heynckes does have the chops. The well-traveled Bayern manager has won almost everything that can be won. As a player, he hoisted the World Cup and European championship; as a manager, he’s won countless titles and cups and raised the Champions League trophy with Real Madrid in 1997-98. He may not have as deep a bench as Chelsea, but he has an unblemished attack available and his Bayern side will surely boss the game.
Bayern has to hope it can make history. Only one team ever has followed through to win the European Cup while hosting. That was Real Madrid in 1957, back before the Champions League even existed.