This week in: English Football – Chelsea win the Champions League

Last Saturday, Chelsea became the first club from London to win the European Cup, as they survived a barrage of pressure from Bayern München to beat the German side on penalties in their own stadium.  Bayern were dominant for the first 83 minutes of the game – seemingly encamped in the English team’s half – but they were unable to take their opportunities, with Mario Gomez the main perpetrator of missed chances.  On the flanks, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were able to penetrate the Chelsea defence on their respective wings, but their final ball was often lacking, or if it was delivered to Gomez, he was unable to convert.  Bayern did finally take the lead in the 83rd minute when Thomas Muller directed his header into the ground and into the roof on the net, but after that the German midfielder was forced off the field with a calf strain.  That completely changed the momentum of the game as the hosts sat back to defend their lead, allowing the London side to move onto the front foot and forego their defensive duties.  From their very first corner of the match, Didier Drogba brought Chelsea level with a powerful header inside the near post – leaving Bayern clearly deflated, after they thought they had already won the tournament.  There were shades of 1999, when Manchester United scored two stoppage time goals to overturn a 1-0 deficit against the Bavarian team, but this time München were able to hold on to take the game into an additional thirty-minute period.

In extra-time, the German team again had an excellent chance to win the game when Drogba gave away a penalty for a trip on Ribery in the Chelsea box.  However, just like when the Ivorian gave Barcelona and Lionel Messi a chance from 12 yards in the semi-final, Robben was unable to put his spot kick away, as Cech saved the shot from his former teammate with his legs.  While the Dutchman was stepping up to take the penalty, Bayern’s captain, Bastian Schweinsteiger, was crouched down in front of his own keeper, unable to watch events at the other end – suggesting that he was not in the best mindset to have the game resting on his own shoulders.  That turned out to be the case when, in the shootout, Schweinsteiger stepped up to take the fifth penalty for München with the score level at 3-3 – Juan Mata’s miss for Chelsea had been cancelled out by Cech saving Olic’s attempt.  Taking only a short run-up, the German captain placed his penalty against the post and thus Drogba was given the chance to win the Champions League for the Londoners.  Unlike John Terry in 2008, Drogba made no mistake and, with his final kick in the blue shirt of Chelsea, he secured for them the trophy that owner Roman Abramovich had been after since he bought the club in 2003.  

It has been an incredible performance from interim manager at Stamford Bridge, Roberto DiMatteo, who took over the club in mid-season when Andre Villas-Boas was sacked, and has now led them to victories in the FA Cup and the Champions League.  Strangely enough, it still may not be enough to get him the job on a full-time basis, since Abramovich wants a big name there and demands stylish football, as opposed to the pragmatic, tactical methods employed by DiMatteo.  The win should also call into question whether Terry – who was suspended after his sending-off at the Camp Nou in the previous round – is first-choice when he is available, as both David Luiz and Gary Cahill performed excellently in his absence.  The meteoric rise for Cahill almost eclipses that of DiMatteo, as the centre-back was in the midst of a relegation battle with his previous club Bolton in January, now he has FA Cup and Champions League winners medals and is likely to be starting for England in the European Championships.

Not only did Chelsea’s victory win them the European Cup this year, it also ensured that they will be returning to the competition next season at the expense of Tottenham, who drop into the Europa League.  This is typical of Spurs’ fortunes, they will always find the most heartbreaking way to dash the hopes of their supporters, but this one was particularly dramatic.  After securing fourth place on the last day of the season, Tottenham knew they would have to wait 6 days to discover which European competition they would be competing in for 2012-13, when in other years they would already have secured their berth in the Champions League.  Three times during the match, it appeared as if they would still make it to the top club competition: when Mueller gave Bayern the lead late on; when Drogba gave away the penalty in extra-time; and then when Juan Mata missed in the shootout.  Yet Chelsea overcame all of this adversity – as well as getting past Napoli and Barcelona in previous rounds when they looked like they were to be eliminated – and their unlikely triumph means that Tottenham will have to compete in the Europa League, with reduced financial rewards and the danger of losing some of their best players coming along with the demotion.  Just when Spurs fans started to believe and had hope, Chris Partlow and Snoop marched us all down to the vacants…

While Tottenham might be licking their wounds and cursing their bad luck, it should be remembered that nothing was achieved in simply finishing fourth.  Nowadays, the Holy Grail of Champions League qualification is talked about as being the most important thing that teams can aim for – with the winning of trophies a secondary concern.  Indeed, Chelsea’s victory was noted as much for their re-entry to the competition next year as much as them actually being Champions of Europe.  The Blues deserve their place, their achievement is much more significant than being the fourth best team in the Premiership, and Spurs should look on this as an opportunity to pursue their own success in the Europa League.  Had they been in the Champions League next season, qualification from the group stage would have been the furthest the could realistically expect to progress, but Europe’s second tier competition provides them with the chance to win their first trophy in 5 years and first in continental competition since 1984.  They join some other big names in next year’s Europa League: Inter Milan; Lyon; Liverpool; Bayer Leverkusen; Marseille; Sporting Lisbon; Napoli; Lazio; PSV and CSKA Moscow will all be competing for the prize, so White Hart Lane may well be hosting some big European nights – if only Harry Redknapp takes it seriously this time around.

That wraps up the English league season – the weekly posts will return in August prior to the start of the next Premiership season.  Before that, there is the European Championships in Ukraine and Poland which I will be keeping up with as the games happen.  You can also enter the Political Footballs Euro 2012 competition here.

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