Moments after Frank Lampard finally lifted the prize that Roman Abramovich has obsessed about above all others, the Chelseaowner strode away from the Allianz Arena podium like a man on another mission.
He hurried past the assembled media, refusing to even admit he was happy. He refused, in fact, to say a thing.
Finally, by the time he got to the Chelsea dressing-room – and by the time the jubilant players made their way back – he spoke.
What Abramovich said, however, was seemingly only for those who heard it. John Terry wouldn’t reveal. Frank Lampard wouldn’t reveal. And, from his boss’s words to whether he will even have a job next week, Roberto Di Matteo was giving nothing away.
But that was only in keeping with the 2012 Champions League final as a whole and his team’s run towards it.
Of course, the minimalist, defensive style of Chelsea’s victory was not exactly in the manner that Abramovich imagined when he fist decided to buy the club after being dazzled by a Real Madrid master-class at Old Trafford.
In many ways, however, this was a more appropriate win.
First, it was fired – and secured – by the player who arguably defines the Abramovich era more than any other. Unlike both Lampard and Terry, Didier Drogba was bought for huge money, was one of the first to come and – for the moment – is one of the last of those initial signings to remain. The striker refused to be drawn on whether his emphatic winning penalty was his last kick for the club but did, apparently, make an emotional speech in the dressing-room.
That it came to that kick was also because of the kind of drama and occasional chaos that has typified Chelsea’s history in this competition and created such an obsession. All of the club’s keynote moments – from missed penalties to dubious penalties to devastating last-minute equalisers – were repeated on Saturday in reverse. Ultimately, Drogba got to take the kick he never could in Moscow.
Finally, the entire victory was built on the element that has been almost as important to Chelsea’s last decade of success as Abramovich’s wealth: the durable defensive base that Jose Mourinho put in place.
Immediately after the final, there were already questions about the exact ‘morality’ of Chelsea’s win and whether the success of such a defensive system from such an elite club was good for the game.
“I think the supporters are happy,” Di Matteo argued. “You have to try and get the best out of what you have and that’s what we did.”
To a certain extent, he’s right. It may not have been the purest way to win. But, given the circumstances and given the time available, it was the only way Di Matteo was going to win the Champions League [open itals] this [close] season. After the chaos and aging team he inherited from Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo had little choice but to revert to the framework the side’s core knew best.
This was something Lampard also touched on as he defended the team’s approach,
“We weren’t playing good football three months ago. We weren’t at a good level. And, to become organised, Robbie’s got to take a lot of credit… he’s built confidence and spirit in the group.”
Lampard also praised the manager’s general demeanour in a statement in which the slightest criticism of Terry’s behaviour could be construed.
“There’s a humility about him, the way he even picked up the cup. He’s been really, really impressive to me.”
Such a description, of course, is difficult to apply to the game itself. It certainly wasn’t a vintage final. Indeed, in terms of general play if not drama, it went exactly as expected: Bayern’s proactive control against Chelsea’s attempts to contain and counter. Given that, many will point to the pity that the team that actually tried to win the game didn’t do so.
But, in truth, Bayern Munich wouldn’t have been vintage champions themselves.
For one, there was their attitude. All through the build-up and many stages of the game itself, there seemed an unsavoury assumption the home team would win. That culminated in the Basler 1999-style moment when Thomas Muller was brought off for Daniel Van Buyten to receive the acclaim of scoring the expected winning goal.
When things went against Bayern, however, their attitude was the exact opposite and just as extreme. As soon as Mario Gomez failed to score the first of many chances, there was an angst creeping into their play. By the time Muller volleyed wide shortly before half-time, their body language betrayed genuine anxiety. They were snatching at chances and trying to force things. The pressure had got to them. And it contributed to a situation where they only scored once from a massive 35 efforts on goal.
By contrast, Chelsea only won one corner. They scored from it.
That illustrated a wasteful front and a soft centre in a hugely inconsistent and incomplete Bayern.
It shouldn’t be forgotten either that, for long stretches, these teams looked exactly what they are: effective also-rans in their domestic league. Chelsea’s otherwise impressive defence still allowed too many chances; Bayern missed them. As a result, the sixth-placed English side are somewhere around Liverpool 2005 in the competition’s pantheon; nowhere near the level of the last few years.
That, however, is knock-out football. Its nuances create such situations; not to mention one where a club from a country famous for scoring penalties let a player from a country infamous for missing them hit the key kick.
Many Chelsea players cited Arjen Robben’s miss as the point they truly believed.
Ultimately, too, they found the formula to properly build on that belief.
It may not have been pure. It certainly does not mean they are the best on the continent. But, in the end, Di Matteo’s minimalism reaped maximum reward. Abramovich, meanwhile, enjoyed the ultimate return on his investment.
THE OBSESSION IS finally obliterated.
It may not have been done so in style. It may not have been a vintage final. Chelsea may not be vintage champions.
But they are, ultimately, champions.
The percentage-play tactics received the ultimate pay-off. Indeed, given the nature of Chelsea’s approach, it is arguably – for once – apt that the 2012 final boiled down to the simple logistics of a penalty shoot-out.
Indeed, the identity of the heroes was also entirely appropriate.
Petr Cech has recovered form magnificently over the past few months, and arguably returned to his world-class best. Although neither of Ivica Olic’s or Bastien Schweinsteiger’s penalties were particularly well-struck, they were decently placed and the Czech had to stretch to keep them out.
In front of him, Ashley Cole has been exceptional in Roberto Di Matteo’s reversion to a team more solidly based on Jose Mourinho’s defensive foundation. His battle with Arjen Robben was epic and it was a pity that the rest of the clashes on the pitch didn’t live up to its levels.
One man did though. He arguably surpassed them: Didier Drogba. The man whose energy up front actually makes Di Matteo’s tactics workable ultimately won this game in multiple ways: first with the force that Chelsea had been missing to bring what seemed an unlikely equaliser. Secondly, by facing down Manuel Neuer – and the Bayern stand – to thump home the winning penalty.
For Chelsea, the player that has almost defined the Roman Abramovich era more than any other (unlike both John Terry and Frank Lampard, he was bought in expensively) struck its most decisive kick. For Bayern, it ended an exuberant – and, in truth, expected – party.
All around this final, there was a huge sense of anticipation that Bayern would have a relatively easy ascension.
It didn’t translate to the players though. Although, as also expected, they largely controlled the game with their possession, their failure to quickly make it count gave rise to anxiety strikingly quickly. When Thomas Muller volled wide from an inviting position shortly before half-time, the body language said a lot.
Of course, once Muller finally scored, shortly before full-time, the body language then said even more.
Finally, the Bayern players allowed themselves to believe. They were to regret it.
With Muller taken off for a defender in Daniel Van Buyten, the shape and emphasis changed. Chelsea at last showed a bit of ambition and Drogba made it count.
From there, it was a completely different tie.
Suddenly, it was open. Suddenly, there were no guarantees… until Drogba foolishly fouled for the penalty.
Then, a team from a country famous for scoring penalties allowed a player from a country infamous for missing them to hit one. He did so poorly.
After that, it seemed the two teams were only playing the game out until the situation would be replicated.
It was. But, crucially, for more Bayern players than Chelsea ones.
Di Matteo’s minimalism had prevailed by the narrowest of margins: a tie-breaker.
Of course, Chelsea’s approach may not have been pure. But, to a degree, it was the only way they were ever going to win this trophy this season.
Plunged into a desperate situation, Di Matteo had to revert to what his players knew best: that defensive base, even if he did show some admirable alterations up front.
That may not be to people’s liking. But that’s what cup football is.
Chelsea may not be the best team in Europe. But thanks to the manager’s pragmatism, Abramovich’s riches and the players’ durability and attitude, they are its champions for the very first time.