Column: Champions League gets thinking fan’s final

The dream Champions League final, in pure football terms, would

have been Barcelona versus Real Madrid. But the world’s two best

players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both fluffed penalties

in the semifinals, leaving us with the thinking fan’s final,

instead.

Which isn’t to say that Bayern Munich against Chelsea is a dull

second-best. European club football’s most coveted trophy and, in

some ways, its soul and UEFA boss Michel Platini’s ambitions for

the future will all be in play when the sober Bavarian and glitzy

west London teams meet at the Allianz Arena in Munich.

A final with the Spanish giants might have produced a better

show and a bigger global television audience. But Bayern vs.

Chelsea could be more significant, philosophically.

Bayern touts itself as a model for the type of club Platini

wants to see and is pushing for: Financially sound and adroitly

managed, profitable for the past 19 years, living within its means,

not beholden to a rich sugar daddy, and certain to field some

homegrown stars on Saturday night.

Chelsea, on the other hand, is Roman Abramovich’s vanity

project. Because he can, the Russian billionaire has poured in the

region of 800 million pounds (1 billion euros; $1.2 billion) into

the club he saved from possible bankruptcy in July 2003.

He has spent tens of millions of pounds on hiring and then

firing managers who failed to meet his expectations, hundreds of

millions more on players (often buying at inflated prices), and

enabled Chelsea to post eye-watering financial losses. And, unlike

Bayern, all of Chelsea’s starters on Saturday will likely be

players bought in from other clubs.

So, in simplest terms, the final will be a contest of two

business models – one, Bayern’s, which purists like Platini believe

is both financially and morally right for football, against another

which many feel is dangerous for the long-term health of the

sport.

One shouldn’t be too simplistic. Abramovich isn’t Darth Vader

and Bayern isn’t a ragtag bunch of rebels succeeding on

determination alone.

Both clubs have spent fortunes to reach this pinnacle match.

Bayern’s attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario

Gomez and its goalkeeper Manuel Neuer didn’t come cheap.

But proponents of the Bayern model argue, somewhat smugly, that

its wealth is generated sustainably, from huge commercial revenues,

its regularly packed stadium, and on-field success, and that

Chelsea wouldn’t be competing at the top in Europe if not for

Abramovich’s financial doping.

”Bayern never spends more money than it has,” Bayern coach

Jupp Heynckes said Friday. ”We don’t make debts.”

So a Bayern victory will feel like a cheer, too, for Platini’s

Financial Fair Play rules which aim to steer European clubs away

from the Abramovich model and wean them off huge losses to make

them more financially stable and sustainable.

A loss could also leave Chelsea in a financial hole, by

depriving it of Champions League football next season and the

wealth brought by participation in that competition.

But, on a human level, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and their

Chelsea teammates fully deserve to be in this final. What warriors.

At 34 for Drogba and 33 for Lampard, they’re proving wrong those

who said they were too old.

Chelsea’s semifinal defeat of Barcelona wasn’t pretty. By

defending doggedly in numbers and scoring three goals against the

run of play, Chelsea offended fans of Barcelona’s artful style and

of its master, Messi. But Barcelona isn’t somehow entitled to

places in finals simply because it plays the most visually pleasing

football. Chelsea had the better luck but also put away its

chances. Barcelona couldn’t make its superiority count.

Which gives thinking fans something else to ponder on Saturday

night: Is it more important to play beautifully or to win? Ideally,

of course, neutrals would like to see both. But not all teams can

do that. History remembers teams that are engraved on trophies, not

always who they beat to get there, how they did it, or that it cost

their owner $1 billion to buy the win.

Abramovich has chopped and changed his way through seven

managers in nine years. It would be deliciously ironic if the coach

who gets him what he wants – Chelsea’s first Champions League

trophy – is Roberto Di Matteo, the former assistant and now

”interim” coach in charge only because Abramovich ditched the

last guy, Andre Villas-Boas, in March.

The big regret Saturday is that six players who should play will

be absent.

Bayern’s David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo, and

Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires are

suspended for one of the biggest matches of their careers.

So, too, is John Terry, Chelsea’s captain. Terry kneed Barcelona

forward Alexis Sanchez in the back in the semifinal and got sent

off.

The other six, however, are banned only because they picked up

their third yellow cards of the competition in the semifinals.

That they and Terry, whose offense was far graver, should

essentially receive the same punishment – being kept from the final

– seems cruel and disproportionate.

So the final will not be a Spanish ‘clasico’ but it will still

have plenty for fans to get their heads around.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The

Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow

him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester