European club football has a rich history. With each season played, a new story is written. Even if each story is unique in its own way, there are a select few that stand out more than the others. I mean, when Barcelona or Real Madrid win the Champions League, it’s just another trophy. Yeah it’s big, but it’s not as outstanding as when a team wins it for the first time, prevails against all odds, dominates in a manner that was never seen before or simply wins in one of the most beautiful matches you have ever witnessed. Those are the stories that stand out and that’s what this series is all about. And to kick things off, we’re gonna be looking at one of the biggest fairy tales in football history: Chelsea winning the Champions League in 2012.
In the middle of the 2011/2012 season, Chelsea wasn’t doing all that good. Being managed by André Villas-Boas, who won the Europa League with Porto in the previous season, they were far from the first place in the Premier League and struggled to qualify out of their Champions League group. On the 25th of February, they went up against Napoli at San Paolo in the round of 16. As he always did in that season, Villas-Boas chose to start the game with a 4-3-3, the formation that brought him a lot of success at FC Porto. He did, however, surprised everybody by choosing to start with Meireles and Malouda as defensive and central midfielder instead of Essien and Lampard, who were perfectly fit for the game.
After a huge mistake by Napoli’s captain, Paolo Cannavaro, Juan Mata managed to take advantage and open the score with powerful left-foot shot from inside the box in the 27th minute. Eleven minutes later, Lavezzi managed to draw it level with a sublime 25-yard shot that left Cech helpless. During first half stoppage-time, Napoli’s Inler managed to find Cavani with a perfect cross from a free kick, allowing the striker to put their team in front with a cheeky finish with his shoulder. In the second half, Chelsea attacked with all they had. Mata, Malouda and Drogba all came close to making it even, but they were denied by some heroic defending from the Italian side. In the 65th minute, a failed clearance by David Luiz allowed Lavezzi to take advantage and make it 3-1 by scoring into an unguarded net, after a pass from Cavani. Villas-Boas tried to change things up by introducing Essien and Lampard into the game, but it was in vain. Chelsea had all the possession, but simply lacked the creativity to score another goal. Even worse, Napoli could’ve made it 4-1 if it wasn’t for some heroic defending from Ashley Cole, who cleared Maggio’s shot off the goal line.
Final whistle blown and Chelsea lost 3-1. That was to be Villas-Boas’ last match as their manager, him being sacked by Abramovic the day after the defeat. After that, the Russian business-man made the decision that would impact their entire season by appointing former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo as their manager.
In the 2nd leg, Chelsea’s mission was simple: attack or go home. Di Matteo changed the line-up a bit by replacing Malouda and Meireles with the more experienced Frank Lampard and Essien, Cahill with John Terry and also an injured Bosingwa with Ashley Cole. After losing 3-1 in the first match, The Blues knew that they had nothing to lose anymore and focused all their power on attacking.
Despite that, Napoli had the best of chances in the opening minutes of the game. Cavani, Lavezzi and Hamsik all came close to opening the score, but Chelsea was kept alive by some fine saves from Cech. Chelsea managed to find the net after a header by Mata, but it was ruled out for offside. In the 29th minute, Ramires sent a perfect cross for Drogba in the enemy box, and the Ivory Coast striker opened the score with a powerful header. Three minutes into the second half, Di Matteo’s boys made it 2-0, again with a header, this time from John Terry after a corner. In the 55th minute, after a poor clearance from Terry, Inler blasted the ball off a volley past Cech and into the net, pulling one back for his team. With 15 minutes remaining, Dossena commited a handball inside his box, giving away a penalty. Lampard stepped up and took the shot, making it 3-1. It was now all level and the game went into extra-time. Close to the end of the first period, Drogba managed to find Ivanovic with a cross in the 6-yard box and the Serbian smacked it into the net, making it 4-1. The Italians failed to create another goal scoring opportunity and so Chelsea were through to the quarter-finals. A big victory for Di Matteo and his boys, but they still had a long road ahead of them and very few people considered them to be among the favourites to win the competition.
For the next phase, they were drawn to play against Benfica. A lucky draw on paper, but the Portuguese side were certainly no pushovers. For the first leg at Lisbon, Di Matteo chose to start with 4-4-2 instead of the 4-3-3 implemented by Villas-Boas since the start of the season. Also, he made some risky changes to the starting 11, choosing to bench key players like Lampard, Drogba, Essien and Sturridge.
For most of the first half, the two teams managed to cancel each other, none of them producing any goal-scoring opportunities. The first dangerous shot came towards the half-time break when Meireles’ volley was pushed out for a corner by Benfica’s goalkeeper, Artur. Minutes after the start of the second half, the Portuguese side missed its first big chance when Oscar Cardozo’s shot was cleared of the line by David Luiz. Chelsea could’ve open the score a while later, when Mata only hit the bar from a narrow angle, after he rounded the enemy keeper. It was followed by some more missed attempts from Benfica’s Witsel, Jardel and Gaitan, who failed to beat Cech with two long shots and a bullet header. Benfica were all over Chelsea. They had the possession, they were creating chances, the only things they were missing were the goals. Still, with 15 minutes to go, Torres managed to carry the ball into the box after a pass from Ramires and then sent it perfectly for Kalou, who finished it easily. The English side was able to defend their lead for the rest of the match and so, Chelsea managed to grab its first away victory in Europe that season. Even though his side got dominated, Di Matteo managed to do in one match what Villas-Boas couldn’t do in 4.
For the second leg, the Italian manager reverted back to a 4-3-3. With Drogba and Essien still on the bench, Lampard managed to find his way back into the starting line-up. Even though they had the advantage from their win in the first leg, Chelsea weren’t going to sit back and defend at home.
However, the opening minutes saw some pretty sluggish play from the English side, with Lampard and Terry having to make some desperate interventions to keep their goal untouched. In the 20th minute, Ashely Cole was brought down by Garcia in the enemy box, winning a penalty for his team. Lampard stepped up and finished it confidently, opening the score. Before the end of the first half, Benfica’s right back Pereira received his second yellow card after a fouled on Obi Mikel and was sent off. It was now mission impossible for the Portuguese team. At the start of the second half, Cardozo had a superb attempt from long range, but Cech managed to keep his team in front. The match quickly became a joy to watch, with both teams creating chance after chance, but both of them failing to score. Late in match, in the 85th minute, Benfica managed to make it level with a header from Javi Garcia after a corner by Aimar. The away team went all-out attack after that, hoping for a miraculous goal to send them to the semi-finals, but Chelsea managed to keep the score level. The famous “park the bus” strategy was working perfectly for the English side. Even worse, during stoppage-time, The Blues managed to catch Benfica on the break and Meireles put an end to their dreams after finishing calmly from a 40 yard run. Another victory for Di Matteo and his boys, who were starting to look better and better.
But everyone thought that their luck was coming to an end in the semi’s. The other teams to make it through to this phase of the competition were Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern, whom were the top 3 favourites to win the trophy ever since the group stage. And their next opponents were going to be none other than their old rivals, the reigning champions Barcelona. No team in history managed to retain its Champions League title ever since the competition changed its format in 1992, but Guardiola’s side were hot favourites to do so. The last time the two sides squared off ended in a very controversial manner, with Iniesta scoring a last gasp winner to send Barcelona to the Champions League final in 2009.
If you thought Chelsea “parked the bus” in their last match against Benfica, well the following games against Barca took that expression to new heights. Di Matteo decided to secure his back-line with Meireles and Obi Mikel playing as defensive midfielders in a 4-3-3 formation. He also decided to bench Torres after some disappointing displays in his last matches and put Drogba in the first 11.
Barcelona didn’t waste any time going on the attack, with Alexis Sanchez hitting the crossbar from inside the box, after a brilliant pass from Iniesta. Fabregas, Messi and Iniesta also had their chances to open the score, but their attempts weren’t good enough to beat Cech. The former Arsenal midfielder came close again in the 43rd minute when his shot went pass Chelsea’s keeper, but Ashley Cole manage to block it from in front of the goal. The English defense was shaking more and more, but Guardiola’s front men lacked the composure to put the ball into the net. In first half stoppage-time, Lampard recovered the ball in his own half after another failed Barcelona attack and launched it over the enemy’s defense for Ramires. The Brazilian ran with it towards the edge of the box, after which he crossed it in the center for Drogba. The Ivorian couldn’t strike it as cleanly as he wanted, but luckily for him Valdes couldn’t deflect it off the goal and the ball went in. After the restart, the Spanish side was even more aggressive. Adriano’s long shot was saved by Cech, while Sanchez failed to hit the target from the six-yard box, after a perfect pass from Fabregas. With Messi kept under control by Terry and Cahill, his team mates simply couldn’t find a way to draw it level. Time was passing by and the Spanish players were growing more and more tense, leading to some sloppy play at certain points. With the clock ticking, Chelsea dropped all offensive strategies and were defending with all their players near the box. Cech saved his team again, this time from a powerful header by Puyol with three minutes before the final whistle. In the last seconds of the match, Pedro hit the post from long range and Busquets blasted it over the crossbar on the rebound. The ref’ put an end to the match and Chelsea managed to snatch a golden victory, after only having 21% possession and 1 shot on target. Somehow, despite all that, Di Matteo won 4 out of 4 of his Champions League matches. But their task wasn’t over, because they still had 90 more minutes to go, this time at the Nou Camp.
The biggest test of their lives was about to come on April 24th that year, when Guardiola decided to go all out attack with an never-before seen 3-3-4 formation. Di Matteo knew what awaited him and started in a 4-5-1, with the exact same players from the first leg.
The game started in one of the worse ways possible for Chelsea, not by conceding a goal, but by Cahill picking up an injury in the 6th minute of the game. The Italian manager had to replace him with the only defender he had on the bench, Bosingwa, and then moving the Portuguese in the right flank and bringing Ivanovic in the center. Barca were attacking with all they had and Chelsea was defending with all they had. In the 35th minute, Busquets was found incredibly free inside the away team’s box after a pass from Fabregas and managed to put the ball pass Cech and into the net. Finally, after over 120 minutes of waiting, Barcelona managed to score. Chelsea’s ultra-defensive strategy was ultimately broken open and the English players were beginning to panic. And the panic spread even to one of the toughest guys on the pitch, John Terry, who committed a clumsy tackle and was sent off in the 37th minute which was a highly dubious decision at that time. Things went from bad to worse when Messi served Iniesta at the edge of the 6 yard box, leaving the Spanish midfielder to double their advantage.
Everyone thought that it was all over for Chelsea. They now had to score at least one goal in 10 men against probably the best team on the planet in a away game. It couldn’t get any harder than that. But still, The Blues hadn’t gave up hope yet. Again in first half stoppage-time, a day-dreaming Barcelona was caught off guard when Ramires sprinted down the middle of the pitch and floated a perfect lob over Valdes and into the net, making it 2-1. Against all odds, Chelsea was still alive. Now, Barcelona was back to square one. They had to score in order to stay in the competition. At the start of the second half, Drogba committed a stupid tackle inside the box, giving away a penalty. Call it luck, call it a curse on Messi’s side, but the best player in the world failed to score from a penalty, only hitting the crossbar. The rest of the match continued in similar fashion, Barcelona attacking from all sides and Chelsea managing to defend by any means necessary. Sanchez finally managed to put it in the back of the net, but it was ruled out for offside. Minutes later, Messi tried his luck with a long range effort, but he hit the post. No matter what Barcelona threw at Chelsea, the ball simply refused to go pass the goal line. In the last minutes of the game, a long clearance found Torres, who came in for Drogba in the 80th minute, at the middle of the pitch, with the entire enemy half open. The Spanish striker sprinted towards the enemy box, rounded Valdes and scored in the open goal, making it 2-2. It was all over. In one of the harshest matches of the season, Chelsea managed to leave Nou Camp undefeated. Di Matteo did the unthinkable, managing to take his side to the Champions League final.
But if you think that was an “against all odds” situation, the final was going to be even more overwhelming: against Bayern, in Munich, with most of their players suspended. Ivanovic, Terry, Meireles and Ramires were all banned from playing in the Champions League final, so Di Mateo had to improvise a line up for the most important match of his life.
Aside from the fact that the possession was about even, the match was almost identical to the one between Chelsea and Barcelona, with Bayern missing chance after chance and Chelsea mostly relying on defending. No goals were scored, that is until the 83rd minute. After a cross towards the far post from Schweinsteiger, Muller headed the ball powerfully towards the ground. It then bounced over Cech, hitting the crossbar and going past the goal line. It was 1-0 with little more than seven minutes to go. Again, everybody thought that Chelsea was done for, that they were finally out of luck and that their Champions League dream was over. Everybody, including Bayern manager Jupp Heynckes, who made the terrible decision of replacing Muller with Belgian defender Van Buyten. Five minutes later, after a corner towards the center of the box from Mata, Drogba flew from between the German defenders and sent a bullet header towards the goal. Despite Neuer getting a hand on the ball, he could only deflect it into the top net. It was 1-1. As commentator Martin Tyler said at that moment, “They’ve pulled the rabbit out of the hat again!”. No matter what predicament they were in, they always seemed to find a way out somehow. The first 90 minutes were over and the score was 1-1. Extra-time was needed to decide the 2011-2012 European Champions.
In the 4th minute of the first period, Drogba turned from hero to zero when he fouled Ribery inside his own box and gave away a penalty, just like he did with Barcelona. Former Chelsea player Arjen Robben stepped up to take the kick, but he fired it low and to the center of the goal, making it an easy save for Cech. Both the commentators described the situation perfectly: Martin “They defy all odds” and Gary Neville “Something is happening”. And indeed, you could feel that something was happening. No matter what obstacle was put in front of them, Chelsea managed to get past it every single time. After the extra time was over as well, the match had to be decided in a penalty shoot-out.
Philipp Lahm was first in line and scored to his right, with Cech barely touching the ball as it went in. Mata was the first taker for Chelsea, but his shot towards the center of the goal was an easy save for Neuer. Mario Gomez was next for Bayern and he finished it in the bottom right corner. David Luiz followed for Chelsea and he scored with a powerful strike into the top net. Surprisingly, Neuer was the next to shoot for the Germans. The keeper placed it calmly to his bottom left. Next for Chelsea was Frank Lampard, who smacked it strongly down the middle into the top net, leaving Neuer with no chance. The 4th man for Bayern was Ivica Olic, but the Croatian striker sent a weak shot close to the middle of the goal, allowing Cech to make his first save of the shoot-out. Ashley Cole was next in line for Chelsea and the English left back placed it beautifly to his right into the side-net. Again it was all level, with one shot to go for each team. Schweinsteiger, the man with the assist for Muller’s goal was the last man for Bayern. The German midfielder tried to copy Ashley Cole’s shot from earlier, but Cech got the slightest of touches on the ball which deflected it into the bar, leaving his opponent to break down in tears.
While the German struggled to get back to his feet after his miss, Didier Drogba stepped up to take the final shot for Chelsea. Time and time again, people thought that Chelsea couldn’t do it, that they were going to be eliminated. And now, for the first time in the final, they had the chance to take the lead and keep it. If you couldn’t tell at that moment, then Gary Neville said it for you “I’m gonna say it now: It is written in the stars!”. And so it was. Drogba struck it to his bottom left into the net, making the dream come true. After a hard-fought season, after countless tense moments, Chelsea finally did it. Chelsea Football Club was the winner of the 2011-2012 edition of the UEFA Champions League.
Ever since Abramovich took over the club, a lot of names came and went: Ranieri, Hiddink, Ancelotti and, of course, Jose Mourinho. All have tried, but none of them manage to accomplish the big task. They all had good teams, teams that were favourites at winning the big one, but all it took was one Roberto Di Matteo and a team of underdogs to defy all odds.