Don’t write off Chelsea
I think that’s a mistake, and that this evening’s showpiece occasion to mark the conclusion of the European club football season will be a much closer affair than the odds-makers seem to believe.
Granted, two important factors point insistently towards the German club: home field advantage and suspensions.
The game will take place in Bayern’s home ground, the Allianz Arena in Munich. There, the Germans boast a formidable record, winning 13 of their last 14 games and drawing the other 0-0. So far this season only one visiting team – Napoli – has managed to score more than once in Munich... and even then they ended up losing 3-2.
The fact that a higher percentage of Chelsea supporters than usual will be inside the arena shouldn’t offer much help to the Blues, either – with team ticket allocations restricted to 17,000 the vast majority of spectators will still be Bayern fans. In any case, I always believe the main advantage for home teams lies in their familiarity with the turf and the terrain, rather than noise from the terraces.
And then there are the suspensions. Chelsea will be missing no less than four players, including their captain John Terry following his idiotic red card against Barcelona in the semi-final. The other absentees are Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires, who will be particularly missed after an excellent campaign of thrust and penetration from midfield.
Without Terry and Ivanovic, and with the unpredictable David Luiz lacking match fitness after a recent injury, the centre of defence is a particular concern for the Blues. With Mario Gomes, Franck Ribery, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger amongst their ranks, you’d have to fancy Bayern’s chances of scoring at least once. To hold the Chelsea fort, Gary Cahill needs to produce the game of his life.
However, Bayern are far from invincible and they have some serious defensive problems of their own – as clearly highlighted in their humiliating 5-2 German Cup Final defeat against league champions Borussia Dortmund last weekend.
The Bavarian club have suspension problems of their own with David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo all absent, and the loss of Badstuber from the centre of defence is a particularly big worry. He will probably be replaced by the rather lightweight Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who could be on the receiving end of a physical bullying from the magnificent Didier Drogba.
Drogba is the single biggest reason for Chelsea optimism. The Ivorian is a phenomenal physical specimen and proved once again his big-game credentials with a pair of magnificent performances against Barcelona in the semis, followed by the decisive second goal in the FA Cup Final victory over Liverpool. His manhandling of the Bayern defence could give Chelsea the edge.
And although Meireles and Ramires will be absent, Chelsea can still feel pretty comfortable about their central midfield trio of Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, augmented by the creative options provided by Juan Mata, Salomon Kalou, Florent Malouda and Daniel Sturridge. That’s hardly a shabby bunch.
It will be interesting to see how both teams approach the game. Will Bayern treat it as a normal home game and go for all-out attack? Will Chelsea attempt to re-create the backs-to-the-wall defensive special that served them so well against Barcelona?
Considering the defensive personnel problems affecting both teams, I’m hopeful that it might be an open, attack-minded affair between two teams who believe they are more likely to score goals than to keep them out. That certainly should be Bayern's mode of thinking.
Roberto Di Matteo might even consider starting Fernando Torres alongside Drogba to take advantage of Bayern’s defensive frailties – but then again, probably not. That’s just not Chelsea’s way, so we are likely to see another siege mentality, counter-attack display from the dogged, stubborn Blues.
That might be enough, even without their captain and inspiration, Terry. Bayern fans, I’m sure, will recall another Champions’ League Final against an English club who were missing their captain through suspension: Manchester United and Roy Keane in 1999. That one didn’t turn out too well for the Germans.
There’s also a precedent to suggest that Bayern’s home field advantage might not rule out Chelsea’s chances: the last team to have the benefit of playing a Champions’ League Final at their home ground was Roma, way back in 1984, when Bruce ‘Crazylegs’ Grobbelaar won the cup for Liverpool with his penalty shoot-out antics.
So Chelsea might just pull it off. But they’ll have to do it inside 120 minutes because if this one goes to penalties, we all know that the Germans are invincible in shoot-outs. Especially when they’re up against hapless English spot-kick takers...