The soccer world has been a series of hangovers over the past couple of weeks. The red of Manchester drank to forget a couple of weekends ago, while the city’s blue popped 44-year old champagne in celebration. Chelsea and West Ham supporters reveled in victory last weekend, while Tottenham, Blackpool, and Bayern Munich fans are probably still drinking.
The final part of the season is the Saturday night to the Sunday morning of late May and June. This pandemonium of emotions from all ends of the spectrum leads into the hangover of the soccer year: that uncomfortable period when the season ends and the transfer market has hardly stirred. The noise and news reach the highest pitches in the season’s home stretch, then flatline for several weeks after the final Saturday of Champions League football.
Thankfully, Euros wait just around the corner, at the hearts of European soccer: Poland and the Ukraine. From the excitement of Dutch soccer to the morbid brutality of Irish play to all styles in between, the Euros will rival the London Olympics as the premier sporting event of the summer.
A significant portion of my Champions League viewing experience took place in a quaint pizzeria by my college. The guy (I will call him Pizza Guy) who runs the place is a loyal Chelsea fan. Despite our differences in allegiance, he accepts my Gooner loyalties with the jovial nature of a chef who casually spits in the food of his enemies.
When we aren’t identifying Manchester United players as closet members of the Illuminati, we have discussed the two titans of Iberian soccer in La Liga: Barcelona and Real Madrid. Several weeks ago, before the semifinal contests kicked off, Pizza Guy told me, “I’m biased as a Chelsea fan, but I don’t want another Real-Barcelona match-up. How do those teams happen to meet up in the finals?”
As Pizza Guy suggested, FIFA is corrupt. It’s a known fact (Qatar is hosting the 2022 World Cup. Qatar!). While the scheduling for the semifinal games (Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid in one leg, and Barcelona vs. Chelsea in the other) could have been chalked up as a coincidence, it seemed too perfect.
The two Spanish teams were neck-and-neck in the La Liga league race at the time, and the sides seemed as equal as they had been in years. If you have two of the world’s most marketable teams, along with the two most marketable players in the world – Messi and Ronaldo, and combine that with the most watched annual soccer game in the world, you get a more views, higher ratings, and more money.
FIFA undoubtedly knew this, but whether it factored into the drawings was ultimately inconsequential. In the two-leg series, Chelsea survived its own Charge of the Light Brigade at the Camp Nou and Bayern Munich beat Real Madrid in the soccer version of Russian roulette: penalties. The result was a final game that most people (including me) wanted.
A final between two underdogs – offensively dynamic Bayern Munich and resolute Chelsea. Throw in the fact that both teams were missing several defensive starters, and the game seemed destined to be one of high-intensity and a high goal total.
Tragically, this was not the case. As often is the case, the promise offered by memorable semifinal series led to a disappointing game. More than anything, this game has been heralded as the Moby-Dick to the Bavarian Team Ahab. Robben choked – this time, on the Mount Everest of club soccer matches, rather than world soccer. Ribery suffered an injury that must have felt a lot worse than looked, and Mario Gomez mucked the bed in front of goal. Bayern’s 39 shots on goal, while a bit of an apparition, emphasizes the stranglehold that the German giants had on so much of the match.
While the Bayern players were largely responsible for wasting their best chances – ultimately manifested in the penalty shootout, Chelsea did just enough to frustrate and hold off many of Bayern’s advances. As inconsistent as Cech has been this season, he stepped up when it mattered in the end. He carried over his sublime play from the Barcelona series to this game, all the way to the penalty shootout.
The shootout fittingly ended when Cech got the slightest touch on Schweinsteiger’s shot, which deflected off the post, and when Drogba scored the final penalty. While the Cote D’ Ivorian player tends to dive with the grace of a swan with two broken wings (not to mention wreck Arsenal defenses), I can’t help but admire the guy. Unlike Lampard, Drogba has shown hardly any signs of aging in his play. His all-out effort in the the second half of the season, especially in the second leg of the Chelsea-Barcelona game, was unbelievable. He played better as a left back than Ashley Cole had for stretches of the season.
Hard work has alway been the way with Drogba. He spent seasons on the Chelsea bench contending with the likes of Eidar Gudjonsson and Andriy Shevchenko for playing time before earning his way on to the field through drastic improvement. He responded to the £50 million acquisition of Fernando Torres, which many people saw as a surefire sign of owner Roman Abramovich/Lord Sidious pushing Drogba out the Stamford Bridge doors, by substantially outplaying him.
Most impressively, he also played a vital role in promoting peace in the Ivory Coast and played for his country in the 2010 World Cup with a broken arm. In that respect, it was a perfect moment when Drogba scored that final penalty – an actual storybook moment, in a world full of media-injected Cinderella stories.
With all this said, Bayern lost because they became another example of a team that doesn’t take its chances and put the game to bed. They did not, in part because their big guns shot blanks in the pivotal moments, but also because Chelsea was Bayern’s foil, in a sense. Chelsea was a “the team of destiny,” as many American sportswriters like to say. The Blues held off the heavily favored (and battered) Kings of Catalan is stunning fashion and had been a phoenix risen from the ashes since Di Matteo became The Sith Lord’s latest puppet.
Since Di Matteo’s hiring, Chelsea ditched pretty boy Andre Villa-Boas’ free-flowing style of play. Frank Lampard played in a more defensive role, passing became more centralized, and Di Matteo used more consistent lineups. Simple adjustments, really, but the change in results was undeniable. The squad felt more stability and played with its trademark physical, albeit unflattening, style of play. Even without John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic in the lineup against Bayern, the team stuck with what had been working and ended up with the UCL cup.
What struck me about this game was not only the lack of quality – the game’s only goals, by Muller and Drogba, should have been saved – but that, ultimately, this was a game of vindication for Chelsea. Chelsea had deserved to beat Barcelona three years ago, but did not due to horrible officiating. After the few peaks and many valleys that decorated the Chelsea season, the revenge at Camp Nou and the victory at the Allianz were long-awaited measures of poetic justice for the Blues.
Even though Torres obviously declared his displeasure with his role on the team, especially on that day, we all saw him with the Chelsea banner draped bandana-style over his head. In many ways, the victory was vindication for Torres too. He achieved elusive glory with Chelsea after an extremely difficult 18 months with the Blues. In that moment, at least, there was no regret nor frustration for the one formerly known as “El Nino,” only jubilation.
At the end of that Saturday night in Munich, the legacy, no matter which way you look at it, rested with the 34-year old Ivorian. Drogba capped his legacy with Chelsea with another goal to doom a North London side. This time, however, it was not Arsenal. Tottenham fans, by all means, continue to drown your sorrows, both now and in the Europa League next year.