Chelsea are Champions!

The most amazing finish ever to a Premier League season it may have been, but Manchester City’s two goals in injury time have been overshadowed by Roberto Di Matteo’s incredible achievement and Didier Drogba’s penalty kick.

Chelsea’s victory never should have happened. In a year with Real Madrid, Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund dominating their respective leagues, while Chelsea finished sixth in theirs, with Bayern Munich and Barcelona basically better versions of the two best international teams, and with Manchester City and Manchester United, far above the rest in England, getting outclassed in Europe, Chelsea’s triumph is the ultimate win for defensive and reactive football.

As with every champion, there were many key moments, but the turning point came in the decision to fire Andre Villas-Boas. Immediately, Chelsea’s fortunes turned. A 1-0 loss to West Brom and a 3-1 loss to Napoli turned to a 4-1 win over Napoli and a long winning streak with the one move. RDM didn’t even take a game to transition to the head coaching role– his first game in charge was the trouncing of Napoli, which they needed to win by three goals just to stay in the Champions League. The timing was simply perfect. It was almost as if the fates wanted Roberto Di Matteo to win the Champions League.

After all the money Abramovich spent, this aging, far-from-perfect team was the one that gave them a second chance in the Champions League Final. Drogba, Lampard, and Terry have been “too old” for at least three years now; a loss in this year’s final would have meant no CL next year, and in two years, this team will not contend for the trophy without major changes. They really had no business contending this year. The next generation, led by the excellent signing Marko Marin could take years to develop.

Analysis of how RDM actually did it is here—this was written right after Chelsea eliminated Barcelona.

As for the final, it was a less extreme version of the Barca games— defend, counter-attack, and get lucky. It could provide a blueprint, albeit a risky one, for a team looking to stop Germany at the Euros. The Germans will likely have somebody more reliable than Robben taking their chances— the Dutch winger had more shots than the entire Chelsea team, but only one really tested Cech. Both Robben and Gomez seemed to let the occasion get to them, which could be a key in the Euro 2012 final.

Two statistics stood out from the game:

50: The percentage of Bayern Munich shots that Chelsea players blocked.

1: The number of corners Chelsea had in the match. Bayern, by comparison, had 20. Drogba, of course, scored from the one, putting an incredible amount of power into his header. Teams practice corners so many times, and Chelsea were rewarded with that goal.

Di Matteo’s starting of Bertrand and Kalou on the wings took quite a bit of criticism before the game, but both were necessary defensive presences, and Chelsea aren’t good enough to win a wide-open game.

Meanwhile, Bayern were coming off a 5-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup final. Chelsea, too, had just been trounced, but they didn’t play their starters in the 4-1 loss to Liverpool.

However, Di Matteo didn’t make the necessary defensive moves after Drogba had scored, keeping two forwards on the pitch, and playing without a formation. Bayern Munich would almost surely have taken advantage, but both Muller and Ribery were off the pitch, because of substitution and injury.

Nevertheless, Bayern did almost score in extra time, and Drogba would have been the villain had Robben put in a better penalty— it was powerful, but very poorly placed, not particularly close to the post and just above the ground. Drogba was also bailed out by a poor penalty from Messi in the semi-finals.

With neither team playing well, and Schweinsteiger and Drogba, among others, limping, penalties were always in store, although it was a perfect situation for Torres to show his skills. He was good, but the players around him were tired. Nevertheless, he won the corner that Drogba scored from (it was Drogba’s first goal when Torres was on the pitch) and had a great dribble at the very beggining of the half.

During the shootout, Bayern were once again hurt by the lack of Ribery and Muller. Robben, Bayern’s normal penalty taker, also declined to take one, after his miss, which all led to Manuel Neuer taking Bayern’s third kick.

With more and more  science going into taking shoot-outs, why is it that teams continue to not practice them? Before being too quick to criticize Bayern however, remember that they had won their two previous shoot-outs.

Playing at home, kicking first, with such good penalty takers, statistics said that Bayern had at least a 65% chance of winning the shootout, but strange things happen in high pressure situations, as the entire match had already shown.

Including the shootout, Chelsea have allowed seventeen penalties this season, only eight of which have gone in. It proves that Cech is a great goalie (he guessed right on all six Bayern kicks), but also just how lucky the Blues have gotten this season.

Bayern Munich haven’t won a trophy in two seasons, despite having, on paper, the third best team in the world. It brings back memories of “Bayer Neverkusen.” In 2002, Leverkusen had qualified for both the German Cup and Champions League finals, and were leading the German league by six points with three games to play. They ended up trophy-less.

Bayern have the best fullback in the world (Lahm), possibly the best goalie in the world (Neuer, who had a great game), the most complete midfielder in the world (Schweinsteiger), and the best winger pair in the world (Ribery and Robben), but they haven’t won anything in two seasons.

As for Chelsea, their incredible form under Di Matteo begs the question: Can they compete for the Premier League title next year? See what I think in my next post.


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