What a ride Chelsea took its fans on during this year's Champions League!
The Blues started the tournament defeating—albeit barely—Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Racing Genk. They won their group and were tasked with putting away Napoli, an Italian side who was on a hot streak in Serie A.
Chelsea went down 3-1 during the first leg in Naples, but then came an improbable 4-1 victory over Napoli to give the club a one-way ticket to the tournament's quarterfinals.
The Blues easily defeated Portugal's Benfica, 3-1, on aggregate in the next round before facing Barcelona in the semifinals.
(Cue ominous music and thunderous lightning...)
Chelsea went up in the first leg, defeating Barca, 1-0, at Stamford Bridge and then miraculously brought down the house at Camp Nou, kicking Spain's best team out of the competition—with only 10 men for most of the match!
Then came Bayern Munich for the final. In Germany. Without John Terry.
And Chelsea did what many thought impossible, winning with patient, defensive-minded tactics and star forward Didier Drogba being in the right place and the right time during the Blues' only corner of the match.
There's a lot Chelsea, and their fans learned during the tournament, but join me as I give you the 10 most important takeaways from the Blues' 2011-12 UEFA Champions League run.
One look at the starting lineups for all the club's group matches told us one thing about Andre Villas-Boas and his approach to Chelsea's run in the Champions League run—the club was in it to win it from the very beginning.
Examining the group matches, most of Chelsea's starting lineup were veterans trying to balance league games against England's best with Champions League games against Europe's best. It was rare to see a new face in any of the matches, even against an incredibly weak Racing Genk team out of Belgium.
Juan Mata, Fernando Torres, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard—all earned a lot of playing time, hinting to many that AVB knew he needed to produce in the Champions League to keep his job.
It's hard to play on the road, especially against the top teams in Europe. But the way Chelsea played away from Stamford Bridge in the early games was horrendous, sloppy and—to put it bluntly—incomplete.
At Valencia, it was an incredibly stupid play by rarely used forward Salomon Kalou, who punched a late-corner kick and practically gift-wrapped the equalizer. While Valencia may have earned a place in the Champions League, everyone knows La Liga is a two-man operation, with Barcelona and Real Madrid the only real contenders for the league title since 2004.
The Spanish side is a formidable foe to many—but to the sixth-richest club in the world?
At Racing Genk, the draw was inexcusable. Sorry, but Chelsea is miles ahead of any club in the Belgian Jupiler Pro League. The same Racing Genk that scratched out a point against Chelsea is the same one Valencia trounced 7-0. David Luiz's missed penalty wasn't the cause for their loss; it was a symptom of the club's losing ways.
At Bayer Leverkusen, a case of unmarked opponents was the poison Chelsea picked, as Manuel Friedrich was completely alone during a last-minute corner and easily headed the ball in past Petr Cech. Either defend for 90 minutes or leave the pitch' it's as simple as that.
Chelsea got considerably better on the road as the tournament went on, but during the first few matches, they were terrible.
There was a 10-day period at the end of October where Chelsea had four fixtures on the schedule—two league matches, one Champions League appearance and a Carling Cup match.
What do they have to show for that week-and-a-half juggling act now that it's the end of the tournament?
Losses in league games to Queens Park Rangers and Arsenal, a blowout Champions League win against an awful Racing Genk team and a Carling Cup victory that only got them to the next round that they lost anyway.
Chelsea and Andre Villas-Boas wanted it all, and it cost the Blues consistency in league play and a shaky foundation from which to play easy Champions League matches.
Were Chelsea fans foolish enough to think their club's taking of Group E was because the Blues were a powerhouse that could take on the best of the best?
Chelsea was lucky enough to draw Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Racing Genk—with the German club giving the boys at Stamford Bridge their most well-rounded opponent.
It was a foregone conclusion that Chelsea would advance through Group E, but their clinching of the group—which happened by the narrowest of margins—still caused many in southwest London to look past several key things, including...
There's a reason Chelsea was so keen to nab Bolton defender Gary Cahill during the most recent transfer window—their centre-backs were in slow decline.
David Luiz's decision-making in the first match against Napoli was questionable at best; you'd hardly know that Cahill had played eight years of professional soccer, what with all the nerves he displayed. And when Branislav Ivanovic was put at centre-back, he was largely ineffective, most notably in the second group match against Bayer Leverkusen.
No one noticed how underwhelming a group of players they were until the first match against Napoli, when Ezequiel Lavezzi and Company tore them apart.
There's a lot of reasons Andre Villas-Boas was underwhelming as Chelsea's manager—he employed tactics like he was playing FIFA and managed players like he was...well...playing FIFA.
But assistant manager Roberto Di Matteo listened to the players when he came to Stamford Bridge. He got to know them and learned what positions and tactics would suit them best.
His willingness to partner with players rather than manage them is the biggest reason they overcame Napoli in the round of 16 and produced a 4-1 result in the second leg against the Italian side. Di Matteo's genius then truly shined, as he balanced league fixtures with quarterfinals matches against a hard-working Benfica side.
However, the times they are a changin' and several Italian clubs are rising in prominence and Napoli is at the head of the line.
Despite losing to Chelsea in dramatic fashion in the round of 16, the Italian club showed they deserved to get as far as they did in the Champions League—characterizing themselves by ingenious defensive tactics, patient play in the midfield and an excellent set of forwards.
First, Chelsea defeated Barcelona, 1-0, at Stamford Bridge with only having 21 percent of the possession.
Then, when Chelsea went to Camp Nou for the second leg, a 10-men side held the ball for 17 percent of the match.
The crazy thing? They still won on smart, gritty defense and emergency tactics that included kicking the ball as far down the field as possible and running back to defend the goal.
I don't mean to take anything away from Chelsea's miraculous victory on Saturday, but one of the biggest reasons Chelsea came up victorious is because of Arjen Robben's ability to score a goal from point-blank range—including a penalty kick that would have put the match out of reach!
The gifted forward has made a habit of coming up empty in the biggest of matches. In his latest World Cup campaign, he was absolutely impotent for the Netherlands against Spain.
He was huge in Bayern's first few Champions League matches, scoring four goals in seven appearances before the final. But if I had a dollar for every open goal he missed against Petr Cech, I could buy enough Stella Artois and Amstel Light to get myself beschonken.
Not only did caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo lead Chelsea to their first Champions League victory ever, but he did it while listening to Blues players and gaining their trust and respect.
According to ESPN, Chelsea's players love Di Matteo and credit the caretaker manager with salvaging the season. Ramires has even gone so far as to say, "[W]ith Robbie in charge we have found more respect in ourselves."
Way to go, Robbie. You deserve it.