With just one night’s sleep remaining before the biggest club football match on the annual calendar takes place, excitement is high as fans of Chelsea and Bayer Munich envision their beloved club lifting the UEFA Champions League trophy.
Despite some high-profile absentees on both sides, the match promises to be an entertaining one.
The Bavarian giants go into the contest as favorites, boasting one of the most lethal attacks on the continent. With flying wingers Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery spearheaded by Mario Gomez and his 41 goals in all competitions this season, Chelsea’s defense is in for a big test.
In addition, Bayern will be buoyed by the support they will receive from their home crowd at the magnificent Allianz Arena.
But what does Chelsea need to do if they are to leave Germany with Ol’ Big Ears in hand?
The Blues have made it this far on the back of some impressive, gritty defensive displays—aside from the debacle in Naples—along with a lightning-quick counter attack that has been led by Didier Drogba, as well as Fernando Torres on occasion.
After toppling defending champions Barcelona in their semi-final clash and also capturing the FA Cup, confidence is high at the club.
If they are to return to London with the most prestigious club trophy of them all, there are a few things they will need to focus on once the opening whistle blows in Munich.
Control the Midfield
Bayern will go into the match without holding midfielder Luiz Gustavo, who may just be the most overlooked absentee in the build-up to the big contest. There has been plenty of talk surrounding the suspensions to John Terry and Ramires for the English side, but Gustavo is just as vital to Bayern as the Chelsea duo.
The Brazilian’s ability to break up play in the midfield and win the ball back for his side is crucial in that it allows Bayern to turn defense into attack quickly and use the pace of Robben and Ribery to great effect.
It also allows more freedom for box-to-box man Bastian Schweinsteiger to get forward and add another element to the club’s vaunted attacking trio.
Without Gustavo, Bayern will start with Toni Kroos alongside Schweinsteiger. For all of his silky-smooth talent and ability to pick out a pass, Kroos does not have the defensive skills that Gustavo can boast.
That will force Schweinsteiger to drop deeper and act more as a holding, ball-winning midfielder than he is accustomed to. He is capable of doing the job, certainly, but that will take away from his exploits going forward.
All of that comes back to Chelsea’s need to take advantage of these changes and dominate the midfield. Quite simply, that is where matches are won and lost.
It is unclear who exactly will step in and replace the suspended Raul Meireles and Ramires, but regardless of who is called into action, they will need to help Frank Lampard control the middle of the park for the Blues.
If the visitors can force Schweinsteiger to play in his own half and disrupt Bayern’s ability to keep possession and get the ball out wide, it will go a long way in helping to ensure that their fullbacks (specifically Jose Bosingwa) are not exposed for 90 minutes, which can only be a positive.
It all starts in the center of the field.
Be Clinical in Front of the Goal
As they showed in the semifinal clash with Barcelona, Chelsea does not need much possession time, or chances for that matter, to be dangerous.
The Blues only mustered five attempts on target in both legs combined—to go along with only 30 and 28 percent of possession time, respectively—yet they managed to find the net three times.
Granted, against the Blaugrana most teams would approach the match in the same way, sitting back and looking to strike on the counter, but I digress.
Fans should expect a similar feel to Saturday’s big match, as Chelsea will once again defend deep and look to strike quickly on the counter attack.
Without the pace of Ramires bursting through the midfield, it will not be easy, as the Brazilian has been one of the keys to his clubs European success. But in all likelihood, Roberto Di Matteo will not—nor should he—deviate from a system that has been successful.
As such, Chelsea will need to be clinical once again if they hope to leave Germany filled with tears of joy, and not those of sadness.
All eyes on you, Drogba (and Torres).
Do Not Concede Early
It’s a no-brainer, I know.
If Chelsea has any hope of winning its first-ever Champions League title, conceding an early goal must be avoided at all costs.
Not only would an early marker for Bayern give an already raucous crowd even more reason to get excited, it would ruin Roberto Di Matteo’s plans to play a counter-attacking game that has been so kind to Chelsea since he took the reigns from Andre Villas-Boas.
Chelsea’s ability to defend with a deep line and break at speed has been a fixture of the Di Matteo era at Stamford Bridge, and an early goal from Bayern would force the English side to abandon that style in search of an equalizer.
With David Luiz and Gary Cahill expected to return from injury and be the starting pair in central defense, it will be vital that the two men remain focused and do not give Gomez an early opportunity.
The first goal in any game is always important. Be it Champions League Final or your Sunday men’s league, taking the lead goes a long way to securing a victory.
For Bayern, however, the opening goal is even more important. Make no mistake, the German club is expected to win this match, and the longer they go without a goal, the more anxious the home crowd will become, heaping pressure on their team with each chance that goes begging and each misplaced pass.
Throw in the recent 5-2 thrashing that Bayern just received at the hands of Borussia Dortmund in the DFB-Pokal (German Cup) Final, and some fans may be slightly concerned before the match even kicks off. An extended stretch without a goal from the home side could add fuel to the fire.
In addition, Heynckes and company have only come back to win two matches all season after conceding the opening goal (via Raphael Honigstein).
For Chelsea, scoring the opener in a match has never as important.
Attack from Wide Areas
Phillip Lahm is one of the best fullbacks in world football, and there is no reason to believe that he will not show the skills that have garnered that type of praise on Saturday.
On the other side of the field, however, Bayern are significantly weaker.
Without Austrian youngster David Alaba—who has been a revelation at left back this season for Jupp Heynckes—the German side is dangerously thin on defense.
Diego Contento is the natural replacement who is expected to slide in, but after showing promise in previous seasons, the 22-year-old has seen limited action this year.
Throwing him into a game of this magnitude may come back to haunt the Bavarian side.
The headaches for Heynckes extend to the heart of the defense as well. He will be without top center back Holger Badstuber, who is out due to a suspension.
The German international will be replaced by midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, who will be expected to handle the power and aerial ability of Drogba, who can cause problems for even the best (natural) central defenders in the world.
All things considered, it seems like a recipe for Chelsea to attack from wide areas and whip balls into the box in the hope that the veteran striker can capitalize on the service.
Heynckes will be fielding a make-shift back-four on Saturday, and it is up to Chelsea to exploit it.
If they can do these things on Saturday, than Chelsea may finally taste the Champions League glory that billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has so desperately craved since he arrived in London.