The only side in the last four who had yet to win the competition, and up against three teams with 17 European crowns between them, Chelsea upset the odds to with the UEFA Champions League for the first time and become the first London club to claim Europe’s biggest prize.
In winning the tournament in a manner reminiscent of 1960s catenaccio, the Blues checked the dominance of Europe’s Latin heavyweights, who had lifted the famous trophy in eight of the last ten seasons.
Quickly out of the running in the Premier League title race, Chelsea found themselves against the ropes in their Round-of-16 tie against Napoli after losing the first leg 3-1. Few fancied the chances of an ageing side that had just been inherited by former Blues player Roberto Di Matteo following Andre Villas-Boas’ sacking.
Given the seemingly thankless task of keeping Chelsea’s season alive, the caretaker went about his work quietly and effectively, finding the words to motivate the team’s figureheads, while infusing the side with an unquenchable desire for victory and switching to an effective counter-attacking style. After launching a thrilling fightback to oust Napoli, the Londoners then accounted for Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, with old hands Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba standing tall whenever required.
As a mark of their durability, the side that defied the odds to beat the Bavarians in their own backyard on Saturday contained no fewer than nine of the players who were on duty when Chelsea went down to Manchester United on penalties in the 2008 final.
There were nine countries with representatives in the Round of 16, as the continent’s supposedly smaller nations punched above their weight again. While Italy boasted three teams in the last 16 (Napoli, Inter Milan and AC Milan) for the eighth season running, England had its contingent whittled down to two (Arsenal and Chelsea) for the first time since 1999/2000, following the shock eliminations of the two Manchester clubs. The unexpected final between two clubs who failed to win their domestic titles also showed how difficult it is to compete and win on two fronts at the same time.
Quarter-finalists APOEL Nicosia were the surprise packages of the season, while Zenit St Petersburg made solid progress once more. Established names Benfica, Lyon and Arsenal all had to battle their way through the qualifying rounds, as did losing finalists Bayern. The biggest shocks of the tournament, however, were the semi-final exits of Real Madrid and defending champions Barcelona, who paid a high price for their fierce private duel for the Spanish title.
Following on from his inspirational performance in the second leg of the semi-final against Barcelona, Didier Drogba was in the thick of things again in the final, scoring a late equaliser in normal time and then giving away a penalty in the first period of extra-time, which was smartly stopped by Petr Cech. He then shouldered his responsibilities as one of the team’s senior figures by scoring the penalty that secured the title for Chelsea.
Despite going off the boil in the semi-finals, Lionel Messi was in sparkling form throughout the competition, ending it as the top marksman for the fourth season running with a personal-best 14 goals, equalling the tournament record set by Jose Altafini of AC Milan in 1963.
Two years after tasting defeat with the Netherlands in the Final of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Arjen Robben endured further misery at the last hurdle, missing a penalty in extra-time and then looking on helplessly as his team-mates came up short in the shootout.
Did you know?
Saturday’s game was the sixth Champions league final to go to penalties, both sides having been involved in showpiece shootouts in the completion before, Chelsea losing to Manchester United in 2008 and Bayern beating Valencia in 2001.
Twenty-eight years on from Roma’s loss on penalties to Liverpool at their own Stadio Olimpico, Bayern suffered the same fate against another English club. In contrast, Real Madrid and Inter Milan are the only teams to have won the competition at their home ground, the Spaniards achieving the feat in 1957 against Fiorentina, and Inter doing likewise against Benfica in 1965.
7 - Out of 35 shots on target in the final, Bayern Munich managed to hit the target only seven times. Unable to translate their dominance into goals, the Germans also forced 20 corners without any end result, while Chelsea showed them how it was done by scoring their all-important goal from the only corner they won all night.
What they said
“That was a real rollercoaster. I turned 30 on Sunday but I got the best possible present on Saturday. I faced five penalties in the shootout and one during the game and I went the right way six times. When Robben took that penalty in extra-time I knew he was going to hit it hard like that. When I saw the referee blow for a penalty after Didier’s (Drogba) foul, I said to myself that I had to stop it. Didier really deserved to win this game. He’s a great guy,” Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech.
Roll of honour
Runners-up Bayern Munich
Losing semi-finalists: Real Madrid and Barcelona
*Chelsea qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2012
1. Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 14 goals
2. Mario Gomez (Bayern Munich) 12
3. Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) 10
4. Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) 7
5. Didier Drogba (Chelsea) 6
Leading goalscorers of the last five seasons:
2007/08: Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United) 8 goals
2008/09: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 9
2009/10: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 8
2010/11: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 12
2011/12: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 14