It’s not every day your team wins the most-coveted prize in professional football, but that’s what happened last month. To say I had an absolute banger that weekend is an understatement. Chelsea beat Manchester City 1-0 in the Champions League final on the 29th of May to win the competition for the second time in their history. I’ve been on cloud nine since then, rewatching the highlights and celebrations on repeat. But it has also been a strange feeling. As I watched our club’s captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, lift the trophy that night, I wondered how I would remember it in years to come. More specifically, I wondered how I might remember it differently compared to the first time we won the trophy in 2012. Therefore, I thought it might be fun to commemorate the win with a blog post; something that tells the unique story of the 2020-2021 campaign and the way I feel about it as a fan.
Comparisons to 2012 felt inevitable as soon as we beat Atlético Madrid in the Round of 16. Not because of the games themselves, but because we had just changed our head coach and found ourselves on a winning run. Much the same as when Roberto Di Matteo replaced André Villas-Boas, when Thomas Tuchel arrived we were reborn as a defensive-oriented team. Both the 2011-2012 and the 2020-2021 seasons looked to be write-offs- but for different reasons. Both teams had suffered a mid-season collapse in their domestic campaigns, but while the 2011-2012 team was judged to be too old and lacking in creativity, the 2020-2021 team was thought to be too inexperienced and lacking in grit. Whatever the underlying factors, neither team looked to be winning anything.
Despite their apparent weaknesses, the two teams finished their respective seasons strongly after changes in management. Both teams reached the F.A. Cup final. Both teams beat Manchester City 2-1 at home in the league. Both teams faced a Portuguese team in the quarterfinals and a Spanish team in the semi-finals. Both teams had £50 million strikers struggling for confidence who each finished with 6 goals in the Premier League but netted decisive goals in the second leg of the Champions League semi-finals. And both teams won the greatest prize of all- the Champions League.
Of course, these coincidences are exactly that- coincidences. They’re like the Abraham Lincoln-J.F.K. similarities; they’re fun for a laugh but they don’t mean anything. But football fans are nothing if not a fervently superstitious bunch, and even I found myself overtaken with a case of the spooks now and then. It was after beating Porto in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and Manchester City in the semi-final of the F.A. Cup that things felt the most uncanny for me. At that point, the Tuchel-era Chelsea team had a great sense of momentum and seemed to have settled into a distinct style of play. There was a sense of history repeating itself and it was then that I started to believe we might finish the season with a trophy.
Everything just seemed to be shaping up nicely. All of the players were playing well and we were hardly conceding any goals. We were beating big teams. The draws for both the F.A. Cup and the Champions League, while by no means easy, worked out as favorably for us as possible. Even before it was determined whether we were to face Real Madrid or Liverpool, I couldn’t help but have one eye on the final. I was confident that we could beat either of them. The toughest teams were on the other side of the bracket. Seeing who was still left, I began to curb my optimism. Getting to the final felt like a solid possibility. Winning it, however, would be another matter. Bayern were the holders of the trophy and had looked pretty damn good last year. And then you had Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, both of whom have long been desperate to win the competition.
That was when I told myself to snap out of the idea of history repeating itself, as though there was some universal law that Chelsea could only win the Champions League upon sacking their manager halfway through the season and reaching the F.A. Cup final. After all, the same thing happened in 2009 and we were knocked out in the Champions League semi-finals. As much as it felt like it might be our year, I reminded myself that everyone is the protagonist of their own story. I imagined that it could very well be Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain’s year. Both teams have risen to prominence in the wake of billionaire investment (in 2008 and 2011 respectively), but the ultimate prize has continued to elude them. It’s not too dissimilar to our own story. Abramovich purchased Chelsea in 2003 and everyone knew straight away that the Champions League was what he wanted most. That was the endgame, and so long as it eluded us, the Abramovich project would remain incomplete. Winning the Premier League and domestic cups are great, but they don’t confer the same prestige as the Champions League. Although nominally only the best team in Europe, the winners are seen as the de facto best team in the world, given the concentration of wealth in the European football market. It’s the closest thing soccer has to the Super Bowl. And as such, winning it raises the global profile of the club in a way that domestic silverware can never do. Those who have won it are a very exclusive group. The last team to win it for the first time was us in 2012. In fact, the 2012 Chelsea team are the only first-time European Cup/Champions League winners in the 21st century, which shows you just how exclusive a group it is. It took us 9 years to realize Abramovich’s dream, and we had to go through the agony of losing the final in 2008, as well as reaching the semi-finals in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009.
When I reflected on our own journey to winning it for the first time, I began to think that P.S.G. and Manchester City were the favorites, with us as the dark horse. This feeling only intensified when P.S.G. avenged their loss in the previous year’s final to Bayern Munich by narrowly edging out the holders in the quarterfinals. To me, that was a sign that 2021 could be their year. It made a good story; last year’s runners-up drawing upon their pain to bounce back. But sure enough, they ended up getting decisively crushed by Manchester City in the semi-finals. At that point I felt for sure that Manchester City were the favorites, as did most pundits and online commentators. They had won the Premier League in convincing fashion and were just as desperate as P.S.G. to claim their first Champions League. Without a doubt, they are the biggest team not to have won it so far, and them lifting the trophy has long felt inevitable. A City win also made for a good story, which for some reason is even more compelling than stats or form when making predictions as to who will win. The British media certainly seemed to think so, and for the last few weeks of the season the 2021 Champions League final was being hyped as the Sergio Aguero Farewell Party. The trophy seemed destined to be his parting gift to the club. You could certainly sense that those in the media, and perhaps neutral fans too, were hoping for a fairytale ending where Aguero notched the winning goal.
Don’t get me wrong- I get it. It’s a sports journalist’s trade to interpret things romantically and find character-driven narratives in the events. Sergio Aguero means everything to Manchester City. He single-handedly delivered the club their first Premier League title with what is undoubtedly the most iconic goal in the league’s history. So there’s poetry in the idea of him bringing them their first ever Champions League title with a similar moment of individual brilliance. It’s not too dissimilar to Didier Drogba’s impact on the 2012 Champions League final and what his performance meant to Chelsea fans. Just one week after Aguero fired City to their first Premier League title in his debut season for the club, an aging Drogba won Chelsea their first Champions League title in his final season. I know that a few years later Drogba returned to serve as a back-up to Diego Costa, but the point still stands that, at the time, his winning penalty in 2012 was his last kick of the ball in a Chelsea shirt. It does bother me that he came back in a lotta ways, because it takes some of the romance out of that iconic moment. Nonetheless, there is a nice symmetry to Drogba and Aguero’s last-gasp heroics in May of 2012, with one player beginning the journey for his club and one ending it. Both the Q.P.R. game and the Bayern game are remembered for those respective instances of individual prowess more than anything else, the entirety of those games reduced to the singular moments that decided them in the collective consciousness. When we won the Champions League in 2012, the media loved that Drogba had delivered Chelsea the trophy they had long desired in dramatic fashion. In fact, since 2012 a lot of Chelsea fans have really warmed towards Gary Neville- a former Manchester United player- simply because he seemed genuinely happy for us when we won. His commentary is almost as embedded in the folklore of the club as the winning penalty itself. So I understood completely when journalists and fans alike appeared to yearn for Aguero to channel both Didier Drogba and his younger self in his last game for Manchester City. To have won them their first Premier League in his first season and their first Champions League trophy in his last season would have brought his career as a City player full circle. After all, there is nothing so satisfying as a sense of completeness. Whether it’s a player edging close to a particular goalscoring record or a team going on an unbeaten run, I can’t help but root for them to complete it (so long as it doesn’t conflict with Chelsea’s interests).
So I could see that, however charmed our run felt, Manchester City had a compelling story in the works. Then you had form, injuries, experience, and overall quality to consider. Manchester City were not only Premier League champions, but they had just won it for the third time in four years. Their 2017-2018 team is the greatest Premier League team of all time. No discussion. Points are all that matter, and that team got 100. The Manchester City that awaited us in Porto was very much a finished article. They had great players in all positions, almost all of them in their prime, and all of them experienced winners. By contrast, Chelsea were raw and unrefined. An identity was beginning to form under Tuchel, but our young squad hadn’t played together long enough to be considered a settled team. The lineup seemed to be in a constant state of flux throughout the season, with very few players maintaining a consistent presence. Our defensive line- which, just like the Conte years, was a back three when we had possession and a back five when we didn’t- changed composition frequently, but nonetheless remained just as strong regardless of who we played there. But while we conceded very few goals, there were question marks over our ability to score them. The forward line changed week by week, both before and after Tuchel’s appointment. Players would come in, show a flash of brilliance, then disappear either through injury or a sudden drop in form. With the exception of Mason Mount, we didn’t have a player that was consistently important to our attack. There was no Drogba, Costa, or Hazard that we could reliably expect to win us matches. Our attack in the 2020-2021 season was almost completely new. Our only experienced striker, Giroud, barely played under Lampard or Tuchel. Tammy Abraham, still just 23 years old, had only one season for us in the Premier League under his belt, and no longer featured for us after Tuchel took charge. Pulisic missed the start of the season through injury, and it wasn’t until the last third of the season that he started to look like himself again. Kai Havertz was anonymous in his first few games for Chelsea, before getting hit hard with COVID-19, missing a lot of football, and subsequently finding it difficult to break back into the side. Hakim Ziyech started the season injured, enjoyed a good run of form throughout November, but couldn’t seem to maintain it consistently for the rest of the season. Timo Werner played more regularly than the rest, but despite some solid performances as a team-player, just couldn’t seem to score as frequently as he had in Germany. It’s like he fell afoul of a gypsy curse or something.
Therefore, it’s understandable why Manchester City were considered favorites. There was a sense that they were “meant” to win. Chelsea went on an incredible run under Tuchel, beating the likes of Tottenham, Atlético de Madrid, Porto, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Everton, and indeed Manchester City themselves, but in the last two weeks of the season there were signs that things were starting to go off the rails. We lost 1-0 to Arsenal, 1-0 to Leicester, and 2-1 to Aston Villa in the space of a week and a half. The running theme in each of these defeats was that we looked increasing less capable of scoring goals. Even during our best performances, we only scored just enough to win. In Tuchel’s 30 games as head coach, the Blues only managed to score more than 2 goals in a game once. Although like the 2012 team their greatest strength was in their defense, the strategy of Tuchel’s Chelsea was not to turtle up. “Parking the bus” involves ceding possession to the other team, letting them come at you, and hitting them on the break when they inevitably get frustrated and overcommit. It’s based on Mourinho’s principle that the more you have of the ball, the more likely you are to make a mistake. So instead, he argues, you ought to sit deep, soak up the pressure, and the longer the siege goes on, the more likely the attacking team will expose itself to a counterattack. That’s the football we played in 2012 versus Barcelona and Bayern Munich when we first won the Champions League. The Chelsea of Thomas Tuchel, however, was very much a team built on passing. It was a team that insisted on playing it out from the back, no matter how high the other team pressed us. There was no target man to hit with a long ball. In fact, there was no striker at all. Tuchel’s Chelsea employed a false nine (either Werner or Havertz), that operated more than anything as another creative midfielder. The emphasis on possession wasn’t quite as heavy as you would find with the Guardiola style, which almost seems to attempt to demoralize and exhaust the other team by passing them to death, everything measured and everyone moving, players constantly running and passing in this beautiful group dance. Instead, Tuchel prioritized the speed of the passing. We would play it out from the back, more often than not under heavy pressure, and rely on overlapping runs and link-up play between the wing-backs and the midfielders to get from one end of the pitch to the other within 2-3 passes. Oftentimes it looked like one-touch football, unlocking the space in the opponent’s half with just a single flick or turn. As a fan, it was fun to watch. The problem wasn’t that we weren’t creating chances- it was that we weren’t converting them.
In the wake of our F.A. Cup final defeat to Leicester, a narrative of the season formed in my head where we would be remembered for coming close to doing something remarkable, but ultimately were simply not ready. I was absolutely convinced by this story, that after the high of destroying Real Madrid, we would be yanked back by the choke-chain and come crashing down to Earth. Glory, I thought, was never really on the cards for this team. Leicester proved in the F.A. Cup final that we were still a work in progress. This is what I told myself each day in the run up to May 29th. We were young and exhausted. Our best player, Kante, had just suffered a hamstring injury. We were losing our grip on the top four and had to play every game in the last few weeks of the season with the intensity of a cup final, whereas Manchester City could afford to rest their key players and focus all of their attention on preparing for May 29th. And then there was the fact that we had recently beaten Manchester City twice, which had the curious effect of making their revenge feel inevitable. Although low-scoring like all of our games, both of our victories against them (1-0 in the F.A. Cup and 2-1 in the Premier League) were won in dominant fashion. Chelsea controlled the games and Manchester City were prevented from playing their football. And yet, despite the apparent evidence that Tuchel’s Chelsea were the Water to Guardiola’s Fire (if you’ll forgive the Pokémon reference) I remained convinced they would get the better of us in round three. One reason was simply that beating such a team three times in a row felt unlikely. Once we beat them a second time, it felt like City were due a win and the story of their revenge was already being written. In my mind, our defeat in the final had already happened once we’d made the mistake of beating them 2-1 in the league. The second (more sane) reason, was that their two recent losses, so fresh in the team’s memory, would serve as a strong motivator for Manchester City. They were a resource for Guardiola to scrutinize in order to make a plan to beat us. I figured that given our recent success against them, we had no real option but to set up the same way as we did before, whereas City would have the benefit of coming up with a specific strategy to beat our system. In short, Chelsea’s wins would ensure that Guardiola would not underestimate them, and that felt like a dangerous scenario.
And yet…come the final, the game unfolded exactly as the previous two had. Of all the ways it could go, a beat-for-beat reenactment was the last thing I expected. But sure enough, that’s what happened. Just as we had in the 1-0 victory in the F.A. Cup and the 2-1 victory in the league, in the 2021 Champions League final we prevented Manchester City from settling into a rhythm. The lineups varied in each of the three games, but the football was exactly the same. From the perspective of a City fan it must have been extremely frustrating to watch, because every time they played Tuchel’s Chelsea, City looked unrecognizable compared to how they usually played. What normally worked didn’t work against this team. No matter the lineup, formation, gameplan, or context, City just couldn’t seem to break through Chelsea’s lines. Even Kevin de Bruyne- who I consider the most talented player in the Premier League and easily a top five player in the world- was kept quiet. It’s quite remarkable, especially given the amount of “match-winners” at City’s disposal. The attackers in their starting lineup included Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Riyad Mahrez, and Ilkay Gundogan, all of whom are proven match-winners. Their ages are 26, 29, 26, 30, and 30 respectively. These are experienced players in their prime. By “match-winner” I mean a veteran attacking player with the necessary X-factor to create a goal out of nothing. I’m talking about prime Drogba, Messi, Ronaldinho, Lampard, Lewandowski, Yaya Toure, et cetera. The players that come up clutch on the big occasion. By comparison, we didn’t have anyone we could yet consider a “proven match-winner”. Our attacking lineup consisted of Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, and Mason Mount, who were 21, 25, and 22 years old at the time of the final, and who, until that day, had never before won a major footballing trophy. These were young men at the beginning of their careers. Their ceiling was- and still is- unknown. The only player City fielded of that kind was Phil Foden, who- like Mason Mount- had had an amazing season, but whose full potential was still an exciting mystery.
But perhaps this year’s final demonstrated that you need more than these “match-winners” for lack of a better term. As you no doubt noticed in the previous paragraph, there was something of an imbalance between the two teams. The task of winning the match (by which I mean scoring and/or assisting) was given to three players by Chelsea. Manchester City, conversely, fielded double that amount. The way Guardiola set up his team might be the most crucial detail to understanding the final. Prior to that game, he had always deployed either Rodri or Fernandinho, and then, for the first time that season, in the biggest game in the club’s history, he left them both out. Neither of these players are match-winners, but their role in ensuring victory is just as important. Their job isn’t to win the match- it’s to prevent defeat. Chelsea, for example, played with Jorginho and Kante in central midfield. Neither of them are match-winners, but just like Rodri and Fernandinho, the role they play in the team affects the attack in subtle ways. Jorginho plays very deep, stringing passes at the base of the midfield, and might best be classed as a distributor. Kante, who runs for the both of them, is better classed as a disruptor. Neither are known for scoring or assisting, but what they do facilitates both. Ironically, Jorginho ended up being Chelsea’s top scorer in the league with 7 goals, but all 7 of those were penalties. His goals from open play really are a collector’s item. But this stat just shows how much Chelsea have struggled to score this season. It’s not that our attacking players aren’t talented enough, but it has more to do with the constant changes to the lineup that have been the result of injuries, confidence issues, the overall form of the team, and the fact that we have so many forwards competing for a place in the matchday squad.
Both Manchester City and Chelsea played without a striker, but their formations were very different. City played with a traditional flat back four, in a formation represented on the pre-match graphics as 4-3-3 but which in practical terms functioned as a 4-6, the 6 being fluid and more or less interchangeable. Those six players were all of an attacking mindset, and that’s the reason Guardiola’s fascinating tactical decision has been so scrutinized. When I saw the lineups, I was afraid at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced it might play into Chelsea’s hands. I can sort of understand what Guardiola was going for; City had been dominated by Chelsea in the last two meetings and he needed to try something different. Getting an early goal with high-risk-high-reward football was definitely an approach that made sense to me. Score early and Chelsea would have to chase the game, and recent matches have shown that when Chelsea are chasing like that, they are at their weakest. I’m not sure starting without Rodri or Fernandinho was a good idea, but I definitely agree that the best way to beat Tuchel’s Chelsea is to knock them out with an early blow. Our recent defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa have shown that when we’re behind and having to take the game to a team that’s defending well, we tend to unravel. The shape disappears and we have to make sacrifices elsewhere in order to get bodies forward. In short, we become forced into being unable to play to our strengths.
So while I agree with the spirit of Guardiola’s tactical approach, I think the way he went about it actually suited Tuchel’s Chelsea very well. With all six midfielders trying to get forward to score or assist (to play the role of match-winners), there would inevitably be space to be exploited between them and the back four. Normally this space would be occupied by Rodri or Fernandinho. As I said earlier, the passing philosophy of Tuchel’s Chelsea isn’t to pass the other team into exhaustion, but simply to pass with speed. The goal that won Chelsea the Champions League was a perfect example of this approach. The six-man midfield of City pressed high up the pitch, and Chelsea had the confidence and precision to get into the open space behind them in a matter of seconds. Between the goal-kick and the goal there were just three passes. Mendy to Chilwell, Chilwell to Mount, Mount to Havertz. It’s all about playing out from the back with pace and accuracy, taking no more than one or two touches of the ball before releasing it up the pitch.
The goal itself was no surprise to anyone watching the game. It had been coming for a while. Chelsea had several clear-cut chances that they just weren’t able to convert. Werner had struck the target twice early on, the kind of chances that statistically result in a goal more often than a save. Later in the game Pulisic went one-on-one with the keeper and narrowly missed a shot I’m certain he scores 9 times out of 10. Every time Chelsea went forward, they looked like they were going to score. Conversely, Manchester City weren’t able to create any clear-cut chances. Every time they got close to fashioning an opportunity, they were smothered by a well-timed tackle or interception. There were no moments for City such as the Pulisic or Werner misses that they could look back on as a wasted opportunity. Everything they tried to do, Chelsea had an answer for. It played out quite similarly to Chelsea’s clash with Real Madrid in the semi-finals, which was even more one-sided. Real Madrid barely got a sniff of a chance, and Chelsea could easily have scored five or six.
The key to the sheer dominance the Blues exerted over Real Madrid was N’Golo Kante. It was the dominance of Kante over the Real Madrid midfielders, none of whom are even near his caliber, that took Chelsea to the final. He was the official man of the match for both games in the semi-finals, and would go on to be the man of the match for the Champions League final too. The inch-perfect slide tackle he made on Kevin De Bruyne was hauntingly reminiscent of Lebron James’ chase-down block on Andre Iguodala in the final two minutes of the 2016 NBA Finals. In basketball folklore, it’s referred to simply as The Block, and it’s considered one of the most clutch plays in history. Kante’s tackle on De Bruyne is just as iconic to Chelsea’s 2021 Champions League win as The Block is to the Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship. I’d love to see it also get its own name, Wikipedia page, and legacy of being referenced in rap songs. The Tackle. Since the final, Kante has emerged as the frontrunner for this year’s Ballon d’Or, and if he helps France win the Euros, I think he will be a lock-on for the award. It would be great to see a player that isn’t a “match-winner” type scoop up the trophy. As it stands, I think Robert Lewandowski still has a great claim, and he definitely got shafted last year. In American sports they don’t have a man of the match or a Ballon d’Or. Instead, the staple individual award is the MVP, which stands for Most Valuable Player. Since discovering American sports, I’ve grown to appreciate the term because of the way the name already frames the debate. It’s not based on stats or perceived talent, but on which player, relative to his or her peers, is the most important to their team’s success. And when viewed under that criterion, it’s hard not to see N’Golo Kante as MVP.
But while Kante was undoubtedly Chelsea’s man of the match in the 2021 Champions League final, the collective work-rate and discipline of the team was immense. Last-second blocks, tackles, and interceptions from our defenders prevented what would have been clear-cut chances for the opposition. Just as clutch as Kante’s “The Tackle”, we had several goal-saving sliding challenges, all around the six-yard line, from Chilwell in the 9th minute, Rudiger in the 26th, and Azpilicueta in the 67th. Thiago Silva looked as commanding as ever in the middle of the back three, but ended up doing a Charles Woodson. Both men were made somewhere else from the team they won with, became defensive legends that specialized in neutralizing the very best offensive players in their field, went on to find a new home they never expected to get so attached to, ended up finally winning the greatest prize late in their careers with said new home, and got injured in the first half of the final after making some great plays. Andreas Christensen came on in the 39th minute having not played any football for several weeks due to a tendon injury, but slotted into the defensive line seamlessly and saved Chelsea in the 89th minute with a fantastic block on Foden.
The match-winner was Kai Havertz of course, who immortalized himself in the annals of both Chelsea and Champions League history by scoring the winning goal. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve rewatched this goal. There’s something about it that’s so satisfying; the pleasing way the space in the opposition half becomes suddenly, invitingly open; the perfectly-weighted pass threaded from deep that cuts through the very heart of the pitch; the sense of poise from Havertz as he lands gracefully upon hopping over Ederson’s challenge, his galloping legs turning like the spokes of a watermill; the calm look he gives the empty net before coolly stroking it home. I’m so happy for him. The guy is practically still a kid. Shit, when I was 21, I was just about capable of getting my piss on target when standing over the toilet bowl. And here Havertz is striking through one of the best defenses in the world. I remember his first game for Chelsea when his only noticeable involvement was a wayward cross-field pass that went straight out of play. It just goes to show what you can achieve when you persevere and back yourself. This kid moved to a new country during an unprecedented global pandemic, suffered through a particularly bad case of the virus, faced the pressure of living up to being the most expensive player in the club’s history, endured a turbulent season in which the manager that brought him in was replaced, and ultimately ended up scoring the winning goal on football’s biggest stage.
Havertz’s goal makes for an interesting contrast with Drogba’s famous header, just as the 2021 final itself makes for an interesting contrast with its 2012 counterpart. With Drogba, the Chelsea fans were watching a player they knew intimately well rescue them at the time they needed him most. To the fans, it couldn’t have been anyone else. At the time Drogba was 34 years old, well past his prime, but still had the ability to make an impact at the highest level. He’s the ultimate big-game player, and at that point his unmatched record for scoring in finals was well established. So to see him do it one last time, in Chelsea’s most desperate hour, was a powerful moment. As for Havertz’s goal, the emotions were entirely different. We were seeing someone win us a final who we still didn’t know very well. With COVID-19 keeping the stadiums empty, in conjunction with Havertz not being a regular member of the starting lineup, the bond with the fans had yet to truly form. So while his winning goal hasn’t got the raw sentimental power of Drogba’s header, it does have something else: a sense of excitement for the future. Given that Havertz has permanently etched himself into Chelsea folklore at the very beginning of his journey, I think the fans are excited to see how the rest of it unfolds.
The differing flavor of the two goals also comes down to context. Drogba’s header didn’t win the game; it saved it. At the time Chelsea were like a boxer on the ropes. Bayern Munich had dictated the football from minute one and Chelsea played the whole game on the backfoot. Our captain, John Terry, was suspended, and we started with two center-backs with suboptimal fitness in Gary Cahill and David Luiz, who had been rushed into the team in the midst of recovering from injury. To compensate, we played our two central midfielders- Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel- very deep, which ended up relinquishing possession to Bayern’s formidable five-man midfield: Thomas Müller, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Toni Kroos, and Bastian Schweinsteiger, all of them in their prime. Our starting right-back, Branislav Ivanovic, was also suspended through the accumulation of yellow cards, as were important central midfielders Raul Meireles and Ramires. Perhaps most intriguingly, we started Ryan Bertrand, a left-back, in midfield. At the time he was only 22 years old, had only made 7 league appearances that season, and was making his European football debut in the final itself. As a team we produced little in the way of clear-cut chances and didn’t look like we were going to score. With the added fact that the game was being played in Bayern Munich’s home stadium, our ultimate victory felt like a heist. The German reaction was one of stunned silence. It was as though the trophy were due to be displayed permanently in the Allianz Arena, and our players had inexplicably burgled it from under their noses to be showcased at Stamford Bridge instead. Unlike the 2021 Champions League win, it’s hard to pinpoint concrete factors for its success. It has always felt as though the 2012 Champions League was won through sheer willpower alone. Overcoming a 3-1 deficit against Napoli in the Round of 16 to win 5-4 on aggregate in dramatic fashion with Ivanovic’s winning goal in extra time. Coming back from 2-0 down at Camp Nou, playing against the best team ever assembled, having lost both our center-backs in the first half (Cahill through injury and Terry through dismissal), to draw 2-2 and therefore win 3-2 on aggregate. To come back a third time in the final itself, drawing 1-1 in what felt like an away game, saving a penalty early on in extra time, and then taking the trophy home after a shootout. The whole run felt like destiny. Chelsea didn’t dominate their opponents or impose a particular style or tempo of football. They played reactive, pragmatic football, winning through dogged perseverance more than anything else. The best team that year was Barcelona. But what is great about cup competitions, and why I prefer them to leagues, is that the pound-for-pound best team doesn’t necessarily win. In a one-off game, anyone can beat anyone if they have the will.
That’s why the Champions League is my favorite competition in professional soccer. It’s not perfect, and it needs its reforms, but the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, and so forth don’t come anywhere near as close to the Champions League for pure excitement. It is the best showcase of the “magic” of the Beautiful Game. It’s always perplexed me when pundits celebrate the Premier League as being this “special” entity “where anything can happen”. Like any sporting competition it has its moments, but compared to the NFL or College Basketball it’s crushingly predictable. The Chelsea team of the 2011-2012 season are a great example of the romance of the Champions League. We had stronger teams in 2008, 2009, and 2010. In some ways it felt as though the football gods were giving us 2012 in recognition of all the Chelsea teams that had gotten so close over the preceding decade. The Ghost of Mourinho lingered, with Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, John Terry, Frank Lampard, and Didier Drogba still firmly in place as the spine of the team. They should have won it in 2008, but that didn’t happen. Once Mourinho’s spine of players grew old, and things looked to be slowly unraveling in the aftermath of Carlo Ancelotti’s departure, it felt as though the window of opportunity had passed for them. When they won, the mood amongst the fans- and I suspect that of the players themselves- was one that reflected not just on the 2011-2012 run, but on the long journey to win a Champions League title since Abramovich took charge in 2003. The 2012 trophy felt like the culmination of a decade’s worth of efforts, especially given that the 2011-2012 season looked to be the least likely one in which we would win it. On paper it was the weakest Chelsea team in years, having had their worst Premier League campaign of the Abramovich era. But it just goes to show that togetherness, momentum, and a fighting spirit can take a football team all the way, even if it is in dire need of transition.
The 2020-2021 Champions League run was entirely different. One of the differences that strikes me the most regarding the two winning campaigns is the apparent dichotomy of order versus chaos. The 2012 run was nothing if not chaotic. It was full of messy games that involved red cards, injuries, extra time, last-minute goals, penalties, crazy lineups, and ultimately a penalty shootout. The whole thing was nuts, but it made for some amazing, pulse-pounding entertainment. During the second leg of the semi-finals against Barcelona, we played with Drogba at left-back, Jose Bosingwa at center-back, and Ramires at right-back. That says it all. The 2021 run, however, was clean and clinical. Unlike the 2012 team that scraped through on willpower alone, the 2021 team had a distinct style of play that dictated how the games went. Throughout the entire Champions League campaign of 13 games, Chelsea only conceded 4 goals. There was a sense of order from the games- Chelsea knew their gameplan, knew their shape, and kept their opponents where they wanted them. They left the likes of Atlético, Porto, Real, and City frustrated, forcing them to adapt to Chelsea’s system. Everything was much more controlled. With the 2012 campaign, it never felt like Chelsea were controlling events. I think its chaotic nature does make it more memorable though. My immediate celebrations were also in keeping with the tone of the events too. When Drogba scored the winning penalty, I screamed at the top of my lungs, tore off my shirt, and threw it across the room. My reaction to beating City, while certainly jubilant, was nonetheless less effusive. The game ended not with a pivotal spot-kick, but with a long ball from Ederson that sailed miserably over the outfield players, bouncing once before being collected by an unchallenged Mendy. The final whistle blew, my dad and I cheered, and we spontaneously did a double high-five. I was happy, but it was also slightly surreal. 2012 felt like a one-time thing. I didn’t expect us to win it again. My somewhat over-the-top reaction in 2012 was down to the fact that it was the first time in Chelsea history we had won the competition, and the fact that the dramatic moment of victory was a massive release of tension. In the 2021 final, I was nowhere near as tense throughout the game. That’s not to say I was calm, but my heartrate was comparatively more steady given the way the game was being played. I knew that things could always change in a moment, as is the case in any sporting event, but barring some freak accident or stroke of luck, it didn’t look like Manchester City were ever going to win that game.
So in a purely footballing sense, the 2021 Champions League win was more satisfying than the 2012 one. This time, Chelsea were quite conclusively the best team in the tournament. I have no doubt whatsoever that Manchester City were the toughest opponent we could have faced, and that we would have easily beaten P.S.G. or Dortmund had it been them in the final instead. But if Chelsea’s victory was so thorough, then why was I so sure of defeat beforehand? And why, given how convincingly they won, were they underdogs in the first place? The reason, I think, is that until they did win it, the capabilities of this squad were unknown. It’s not so much that anyone thought this Chelsea side were bad; it’s simply that no one knew yet how far they could go. In some ways it feels like they won before their time. Alan Hansen was mocked back in the day for his famous line “You can’t win anything with kids,” and while that didn’t turn out to be true in regards to Fergie’s Fledglings in the mid-90s, I feel like the sentiment is representative of football most of the time. I was so happy for the young players in our squad such as Mount and Havertz to be able to call themselves the best team in the world, and begin their Chelsea careers in such a bright way. Of course the team wasn’t entirely composed of youngsters, and it was great to see a 36 year old Thiago Silva finally lift the trophy after losing in the final last year. Naturally I couldn’t help but feel sad when the camera turned to Aguero, who I’ve always admired as a player, but I guess it’s the same for any sporting final; someone has to lose, and you always feel bad for that someone on a human level. I have no doubt City will win the Champions League before long. Another player I was especially happy for was Édouard Mendy, who started his professional career in the French third division before finding himself without a club at the age of 22. He was then out of football for a year, registering for unemployment and beginning to work jobs outside of the sport. For all intents and purposes, his career as a footballer looked dead in the water, but an old friend recommended him to Marseille and he was signed on as their fourth-choice goalkeeper. Now here he is, a European champion, with an impressive record of clean sheets that he can display like a tower of enemy skulls. Mendy’s 9 clean sheets in 12 games is the most any keeper has managed in a single Champions League season.
If it wasn’t clear already, I’m delighted for this team and with the way they won it. While both are special, I think there as many differences as there are similarities between Chelsea’s twin crowns, and hopefully this post has helped to illustrate what makes each one unique.