The Allianz Arena in Munich—May 19, 2012. Chelsea trail Bayern Munich 1-0, with two minutes remaining, and are staring down defeat in a Champions League final that has passed them by.
Bayern are heartbeats away from club football's biggest prize. Looking up at the massed ranks of partisan fans in their home stadium, the men in red shirts can glimpse the promised land. A first European title since 2001 looms large and Germany's superpower will once again rule the continent.
But this Chelsea vintage are nothing if not stubborn in the face of adversity. We've already seen them overturn a 3-1 deficit to Napoli in the quarterfinals and resist the irresistible force of Barcelona at Camp Nou in the semis. One way or another, blue has found a way.
Up steps Juan Mata to take a corner on the right. The Spaniard has been a low-key presence in the final and a faded force in the latter part of the season, but here offers a chance to make eternal amends. Chelsea players clutter the penalty area, jostling with Bayern defenders and writhing like fish in a net to find breathing space.
Mata's ball hits the near post and the run of Didier Drogba—Chelsea's warhorse striker, playing his last game for the club and desperate to fulfill a promise to his teammates that it would end in unlikely European triumph. Propelled by a flex of his shoulder and neck muscles, and with a whip of his ponytail, Drogba's forehead and the ball meet in a blur.
Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, despite his lightning reflexes, can barely throw his hands up before a white missile ripples the net and blue delirium takes hold. Chelsea are level at 1-1 and their Champions League hopes are reborn.
From there, the momentum is theirs. And while extra-time and a penalty shootout will come before their ultimate triumph, there can be no disputing Drogba's goal as the defining—and perhaps decisive—moment of the final.
To that end, Drogba's legacy as Chelsea's Champions League hero is assured. Moreover, it's a legacy that is beginning to look like a Sliding Doors moment in the club's history—one that may shape their successes to come and could well have averted a potential downturn with devastating consequences.
Consider what might have happened had Chelsea lost to Bayern. We know for sure they would have missed out on Champions League football next season and we can speculate with some justification that Roberto Di Matteo would not have been offered the two-year contract as their coach he held out for.
The combination of those things would have left the club in uncertain shape this summer. Di Matteo may well have quit and in so doing, left behind a squad that had thrived under his leadership, faced with adapting to yet another new regime. What's more, whoever Chelsea got to replace Di Matteo would have been blighted by the constant speculation they were simply guarding the sheep until Pep Guardiola returned to work.
Might Chelsea have lost some of its best players as a result? It's entirely possible, especially when you consider the reported struggles players like Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and John Terry had adapting to the Andre Villa-Boas way of doing things.
Then there's the impact on Chelsea's buying power. For all Roman Abramovich's rubles, do we really think Eden Hazard would have signed for a club who wouldn't be playing in the Champions League? Or the Brazilian Oscar, who is reportedly destined to be the Blues' third big purchase of the summer?
Porto striker Hulk is another who may be on his way to Stamford Bridge, and it's clear that night in Munich has loomed large in his thinking. "Chelsea are the current European champions and would please any player and I'm no exception," Hulk said (Daily Mail). "I'd be happy if the transfer happened."
Can we also speculate that Abramovich himself was running short on patience? With UEFA's financial fairplay rules set to shackle his spending, could the Russian have decided another round of costly rebuilding—with no Champions League income to sustain it and all eyes on the balance sheet—was beyond him?
It's just speculation of course, but had the ripple effect of Champions League disappointment been Abramovich's departure, Chelsea would have some serious financial problems to address.
Thanks to Drogba's goal, that's not even a consideration. Abramovich shed tears over his team's Champions League victory and appears to be as invested in the club's future now as ever before. He saw a personal dream realized in Munich and—as with all rampantly successful businessman—now wants it repeated many times over.
Chelsea's signings this summer demonstrate his commitment, and appear to suggest the team may just be getting started. After all, if an aging Chelsea can win the Champions League, just think what a rejuvenated outfit bristling with world-class additions might be capable of.
Chelsea are in rude health and reaping every possible benefit from a night in May that saw fate fall on their side. While Drogba won't be along for the ride this time, the legacy of his goal in the Champions League final will have as much impact on their fortunes as anything else this coming season.
“It was written that we would win tonight and I want to dedicate the victory to all the managers and players we’ve had before," Drogba told reporters after that heady night in Munich (Mirror). "My goal changed the game. It’s fantastic. Amazing.”
It changed more than the game, Didier. It changed Chelsea's destiny.