It was the greatest night in the history of Chelsea Football Club. Not for the first time during their Champions League run in 2011/12, the odds were stacked against the west Londoners heading into the final on 19 May: not only did they have to face a formidable Bayern Munich team stacked full of world-class players, they had to do so at their opponents’ own stadium, the Allianz Arena. Yet the Blues once again dug deep and found a way to win, becoming the first team from London to claim the continent’s biggest prize.
Roberto Di Matteo was the man in the Chelsea dugout that evening, but he began the campaign as assistant to Andre Villas-Boas. The Portuguese took 10 points from the first 12 available in the Premier League, but Chelsea were dogged by inconsistency throughout the first half of the season. This was true both domestically and in Europe, where the west Londoners topped a Champions League group containing Bayer Leverkusen, Valencia and Genk but only finished three points above third place.
Having won just two of their previous 10 Premier League games, optimism was in short supply when Chelsea travelled to the Stadio San Paolo for the first leg of their last-16 clash with Napoli in February. Juan Mata gave the visitors the lead shortly before the half-hour mark, but Ezequiel Lavezzi’s brace and an effort from Edinson Cavani put the Italians in pole position to progress. Villas-Boas was heavily criticised for leaving Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien out of his starting XI in Naples; although Chelsea recovered to beat Bolton Wanderers 3-0 a few days later, this was the beginning of the end for the Portuguese, who was dismissed following a 1-0 defeat by West Bromwich Albion before the second leg.
Di Matteo was pushed forward into the No.1 role for the visit of Napoli, who were beaten 4-1 after extra time as Chelsea’s players reminded the watching public of their quality. A 3-1 aggregate triumph over Benfica booked their place in the semi-finals, where Barcelona were edged out 3-2 over two legs thanks largely to an astonishing backs-to-the-wall display at the Camp Nou. Having failed to make it this far during the strongest periods of the Roman Abramovich era under Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, a Chelsea team at one of their lowest recent ebbs had somehow booked their place in the Champions League final.
It was, however, hard to see the Blues claiming the biggest prize in the European game. Runners-up in 2010 under Louis van Gaal, Bayern – now managed by Jupp Heynckes – had squeezed past Real Madrid on penalties in the last four, having overcome Marseille (4-0 on aggregate) and Basel (7-1 on aggregate) in their prior knockout ties. Playing the showpiece at the Allianz Arena gave them a huge advantage, while a starting XI of Manuel Neuer; Philipp Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Diego Contento; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos; Arjen Robben, Thomas Muller, Franck Ribery; Mario Gomez looked far stronger than Chelsea’s equivalent – Petr Cech; Jose Bosingwa, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Cole; Salomon Kalou, John Obi Mikel, Lampard, Ryan Bertrand; Juan Mata; Didier Drogba.
As expected, Bayern dominated possession throughout, with Chelsea adopting the reactive, counter-attacking approach that had ultimately won the day against Barcelona. Robben forced a smart save from Cech and Gomez fired a good chance over the bar as the German outfit piled on the pressure, but the Blues rearguard stood firm and made it to half-time with the deadlock still intact.
That backline was eventually breached, however, with Muller heading home in the 83rd minute to finally give Bayern the lead. Yet Chelsea once again showed tremendous resilience to hit back with two minutes of normal time left to play, Drogba restoring parity by rising highest to power Mata’s corner past Neuer.
The drama was not over there. Bayern continued to dominate possession in extra time, and Drogba’s clumsy foul on Ribery inside the area gave Robben the chance to put his team ahead once more. The Dutchman failed to take it, though, and the Bavarians’ inability to find the net for the remainder of the additional 30 minutes meant the Champions League final would be decided by a shoot-out for the first time since Manchester United’s victory over Chelsea in 2008.
Lahm, Gomez, Neuer, Luiz and Lampard were all successful with their efforts, but Neuer’s save from Mata put Chelsea on the back foot from the start. However, Cole found the net to level the scores after Ivica Olic had failed to convert his kick, and Schweinsteiger’s subsequent miss gave Drogba the chance to make history. It was an opportunity the Ivorian did not pass up, rolling the ball into the bottom corner to send Chelsea’s fans, players and staff into delirium. No one had seen this coming, but the Blues were champions of Europe for the first time.