With the close of domestic European seasons this past weekend, the footballing world turns its eye toward the world’s most watched club competition final. The Champions League crown will be rewarded to either Bayern Munich or Chelsea as the two are set to square off this Saturday in Munich.
There have been a hundred different breakdowns of what we can expect in this match and a thousand more before the ball gets rolling in less than a week. The “expert” analyses of commentators and pundits will put their own spin on how things will break down, making ludicrous score-line predictions armed with no more knowledge than their own egoism.
This article will steer clear of such narcissism and focus more on the actual facts that are known about the teams, and how those facts will work themselves into play at the final. Here are 15 factors that could decide the outcome of the 2012 Champions League final.
Chelsea will be without Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Raul Meireles and Ramires for the final as all have been ruled out due to suspension.
Terry, who received that ridiculous red card for kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the back in the second leg of their semifinal tie against Barcelona, was never expecting to make it in. But the other four all appealed their suspensions, hoping that UEFA and its antiquated laws would overturn their yellow cards for the final.
All four were starters in that incredible result over Barca, being major players in both legs. Ivanovic and Terry were rocks on an impervious backline, and Meireles was a stopper in the midfield.
However, no one will be missed more than Ramires, who has been the biggest goal threat for the Blues in recent weeks. His speed down the flanks on the counter was what allowed Chelsea by Barca and gave them their identity down the stretch.
With no one else who can really fill in in that capacity to the same degree, there is a glaring hole in the Chelsea game plan that may be too much for them to overcome.
Bayern will also be without their fair share of starters as Luiz Gustavo, David Alaba and Holger Badstuber all picked up bookings in the second leg of their semifinal clash with Real Madrid.
For a team that does not have its identity vested quite as much in defense as Chelsea, it may appear that losing three defensive players will not greatly affect their chances. However, the exact opposite may actually come into play.
Alaba and Badstuber have been consistent faces on the left side of the Bayern defense for the past few months. Their partnership has been one of major reasons Bayern has had the best defense in the Bundesliga.
Gustavo’s holding role in the midfield has also contributed greatly to that and their dynamic play in the attack.
With those three gone, there is not exactly a hole that cannot be filled, but whenever you mess around with a starting lineup, there are risks to be had. At this level, the lack of familiarity along the backline could be enough to give the Bayern attack the edge.
On top of the suspensions, Chelsea will also be without Florent Malouda, who injured himself in the team’s final EPL game against Blackburn. The French winger would have likely seen action with the number of players out, as either a sub or surprise starter.
However, the real injury concerns are along the backline. With Terry and Ivanovic already out, Chelsea is left with only two natural center-backs, David Luiz and Gary Cahill, who are both recovering from hamstring injuries.
The latest has them “probably” being fit in time, but nothing is yet confirmed. If Chelsea are without the two, it will be very much a makeshift back four, which could spell trouble in defending the potent Bayern attack.
Few matchups have gotten as much pregame notoriety as the one that will be happening on the right side (or left if you’re a Bayern fan) flank of the field. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the battle between Jose Bosnigwa and Franck Ribery could decide the fate of the match.
Bosingwa has been arguably the worst player for Chelsea on the season. His inconsistent play in the right-back position has hurt the Blues all year, making them vulnerable to the counter.
His man-to-man coverage is not much better, as the most average of wingers often beat him both inside and with the cross. But other times he can be one of the best defenders out there, as he was against Barca, and be very influential in the attack.
Ribery is a world-class player but can be very spotty as well. He can have games where he is the most important player on the field, directing all attention toward him and opening the play for his teammates. Then in others, he will disappear entirely and become nothing more than someone taking up room on the pitch.
What makes this duel so intriguing is that you have no idea which players are actually going to show up.
If both bring their A-game, it is likely that this could be an equal duel where whoever gets the upper hand will also get the win. But it is also just as likely that it falls flat on its face and both teams look to keep the ball away from that side as often as possible.
Bastian Scheweinsteiger has been arguably the best player for Bayern this season. While Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and Ribery get all the accolades in terms of numbers, Schweinsteiger sits behind them as the engine that makes the whole thing go.
His play through the midfield, sitting deep when on defense and moving forward to progress the ball, has been the fulcrum of the Bayern attack.
Simplicity is the style with which he plays. Though he's not exactly an “inventive” or immensely “creative” player, he has the vision and technique in his passing that still makes him one of the best in the world.
Add in his major defensive contributions, and there are few, if any, as complete midfield players.
However, against Chelsea he will come up against a very strong defensive midfield that puts a lot of pride in not allowing the decisive pass through the center. They fall back and stay organized better than any other team in closing down lanes and shielding their box.
Scheweinsteiger will probably come up against his biggest challenge yet in feeding the ball through to the attackers. If the Blues can make it tough for Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, it will be no walk in the park for Scheweinsteiger, either.
You might look at this as a “duh” statement, but it will likely be the very factor that decides the outcome of the match.
Didier Drogba has had a spotty season at best in terms of scoring. He is currently third on the team behind Lampard and Daniel Sturridge, neither of whom are putting up career defining numbers themselves.
Drogba’s lack of consistency can be blamed on a handful of things. It was obvious that under Andre Villas-Boas he was not comfortable. At age 34, he is not the same player he once was. The team around him does not give him the same support they once did. But it all is really meaningless when it comes down to being able to produce the goals Chelsea need.
The incredible thing about Drogba is that just when you think he is done, he figures out a way to make himself relevant. He was arguably the most important player in Chelsea’s games against Barca, giving the defense a break with his hold-up play. He scored a goal out of nothing in the FA Cup semifinal and another textbook one in the final to give them the title.
All season long, you never knew which Drogba you were going to get unless it was a big-time game. It doesn’t get any bigger than this, so for Chelsea’s sake they better hope the trend continues.
I do not think there is a battle I am more excited to see than this one, where the two players will not even be able to see the other's eyes. Rarely are the fans lucky enough to see two of the world’s top five keepers square off in the Champions League final, but this year it is so.
Chelsea’s Petr Cech has had yet another tremendous season. After getting off to a rough start under the failed tactics of Villas-Boas, he has found himself back in standard form, which is exceptional for 99 percent of the goalies out there.
An argument could be made that since the departure of Villas-Boas, there has not been a better keeper in the world as his display against Barca in both legs was legendary.
Manuel Neuer is just the latest in a long line of Germany’s rich goalkeeping history. With no titles to his name yet as a member of Bayern, he is bound to achieve many, as some see him becoming the next Oliver Kahn.
These two are as close to infallible as you can get. They were perfect leading up to this point, and little suggests that will change Saturday.
However, it may come down to the ambiguous idea of one being more perfect than the other—who doesn’t give up the rebound to the middle, who punches the ball far enough on a cross, who directs his makeshift back line better.
Juan Mata has had an exceptional first season for Chelsea. Leading the team in assists (19) and tying for third in goals (12) was more than enough to make him Chelsea’s player of the year, an honor he received last week. But the award was given more for the dynamic style he brings to this at times bland side.
In the two legs against Barcelona, he was absent as the game plan of bunker-to-counter did not exactly serve to his strengths. But when the Blues adopt a more traditional style of play, he becomes the center of the attack.
When Roberto Di Matteo moved him just behind the striker, it changed the play of the offense. They suddenly found themselves getting more chances and shots through the wide play they prefer, as defenders converge on the middle to shut Mata down.
In consequence, it has allowed room for the forwards to find space and Lampard to move up without pressure.
In a one-game, winner-take-all atmosphere, it is foolish to think Chelsea will park the bus. They will approach this game with the same attitude they would any other team that is not named Barcelona.
And just like in majority of those games, it will be up to Mata to make things happen in the offensive third.
With Terry and Ivanovic out, Chelsea are missing their two best positional defenders. Both are probably the slowest players on the pitch when they play, and neither is extremely athletic. But they are incredibly smart and experienced defenders.
Cahill and Luiz are not exactly in this same class. These two are much more apt to battling on the physical lines, using their athleticism and ability to recover to make up for their shortcomings. But both stand the best chance in the air.
Gomez is a big strong classical striker, but he is better with his feet than he is with his head. Not to say that he is not strong in the air, but the battle between him and these two center-backs becomes much more even.
Chelsea will likely force Ribery and Robben out wide, not wanting them to cut in with those shots that they have. Crosses will be aplenty, and if Gomez can outmuscle Chelsea to one or two of them, it may just be enough to get them the victory.
Like magic, it seems the once ready-to-be-shipped-out John Obi Mikel has found new life under the Di Matteo defensive philosophy. The Nigerian, who has often been described as a sort of lesser Essien, has made the most of his opportunities this season and been a rock in the central midfield.
The preferred formation of 4-2-3-1 only works when you have a player like Mikel who can hold the spot just in front of the defense and prevent easy counters through the middle. Lampard, who is often partnered alongside him, is allowed to move up in the attack without fear of being beaten in the back.
It was Mikel’s brilliant performance in the semis that helped get Chelsea to this point. He stood strong in lanes and was never fooled by the trickery of his opponents.
If he can keep that same kind of consistency in the final, then it will be a difficult task for Bayern to break down the Chelsea defense.
Bayern Munich need to get on the scoreboard first. In an astonishing record, all eleven of Bayern’s losses on the season saw the opponent scoring the first goal. That only happened in three of their wins.
Chelsea, on the other hand, scored the first goal in five of their 12 losses, giving up the lead in all of them to fall. However, they have also scored first in all but two of their wins.
I really do not know what to make of this, other than the fact that whoever scores first can be a very telling of the overall result.
The media invest so much energy into exploring the enigmatic personalities of bosses like Sir Alex Ferguson and charismatic ones like Jose Mourinho, that often they forget to mention those who keep things simple and just win. Di Matteo and Heynckes do exactly that.
Neither have the kind of pedigree you would expect out of managers in the Champions League final. One is only an interim boss, and his future is still uncertain. The other had brief managerial success in the late 80s and then popped up again for an even more brief spell at the turn of the century.
However, that little history means nothing come Saturday as both will deploy tactics that follow one simple idea: putting their players in the best possible position to win.
Too often, managers try to micromanage and over-analyze the information available to them. They live in a virtual world where the lines between being able to manage your players and influence them on the pitch becomes blurred.
No one is going to hail Di Matteo or Heynckes as tactical geniuses. But it would be wrong to not appreciate the success in their brevity.
Whoever outwits the other will be praised as the victor, but odds are it would be more logic than anything that made the decision in the first place.
Bayern Munich will be the first team in the UEFA Champions League era to play the final at home and the first since Roma played a European final at the Stadio Olimpico in 1984. However, much has changed since then, making this advantage not as big as it would seem.
Thanks to the immense amount of corporate sponsors and equality in the game today, the tickets are split to the point where the fan base of one team will not heavily outweigh the other in the stadium on game day.
Though, there are advantages still to be had. Bayern will be more familiar with the tiny nuances of the pitch and such things as the lights and angles that can make all the difference in such a tightly contested affair. These seemingly impartial variables heavily favor the side who has seen them for seven years now, rather than the many who are here for the first time this week.
Bayern Munich is a club of sizable history. They are the crowning glory of a nation that prides itself on being one of the game’s best year in and year out.
They have won their own league a record 22 times, their domestic cup another 15 and four European titles, while reaching four more finals. Only Real Madrid can claim more all-around success than what the Germans have done in their time.
That kind of history will favor them here heading into the final, as the club’s philosophy has winning inherently bred into it.
It is kind of hard to call a team that has invested literally billions into itself over the past decade to win titles an underdog. But that kind of perceived adversity has been what has gotten Chelsea this far.
The tumultuous season has pegged the Blues as the underdog team in every big game they have played since December. For Chelsea, matches against the world's very best used to be considered difficult, but never impossible. This season, despite the ups and downs, they have upset more than their fair share of teams.
I, for one, can never see a team with this much talent as an underdog, but that kind of mentality has worked very well for them so far. What’s to say it will not work now?
It will be an exciting week of preparations for the two sides as player/manager interviews, training ground footage and montages of how these two teams got here all help build up the match. I personally think it will be one of the better finals we have seen in some time, given that the two are relatively even in terms of both talent and style.
The 15 factors I laid out above are just some of the things that I think will play out this Saturday.
As you may notice, I tried to stay away from motivational factors such as Chelsea playing for a Champions League berth or Bayern not wanting to go trophy-less this campaign. I think these are rubbish arguments as professional athletes do not need outside mind games to get up for the biggest match of their careers.
So with that said, what factors do you think will come into play in the final?
As always, please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!
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