Sunday, May 20, 2012

2012 Champions League Recap

Chelsea's 2012 UEFA Champions League title was a storybook finish, and after looking back on the epic instant classic, the result seems even more Disney-esque.

Looking at the teams on paper, you would figure that it would be a contrast of two very different styles - knowing that Bayern Munich would come out and press Chelsea offensively, while Chelsea would have to absorb pressure and play off the counter.

Yellow and red card suspensions figured to have an influence on the teams on the field, as Chelsea were without several key contributors in Ramires, Meireles, Ivanovic and Terry.  Where Bayern was also missing a few starters to suspension, their lineup was more influenced by who was in the team as replacements. 

Their defense was constructed with Tymoshchuk moving back and playing centerback and with Toni Kroos deeper in midfield.  This allowed Thomas Muller to start in Kroos' role, giving Bayern a pretty potent attack with Muller, Robben and Ribery sitting underneath Gomez.

Chelsea opted to counter Lahm and Robben on Bayern's right flank by using Ryan Bertrand on the left flank - hoping that the combination of Bertrand (making his first UCL appearance) and Ashley Cole would neutralize the potent Bayern right flank.

Bayern came out of the gates as the aggressors, seeing more of the possession as well as scoring chances.  The fact that Bayern was able to create a lot of pressure without committing numbers forward also minimized Chelsea's ability to counter attack.  Bayern's front four created a lot of pressure with the ball, and not only did that keep Chelsea on their back foot, but it also minimized the number of counter opportunities through Drogba - who was often up front on his own.  Chelsea's alignment resembled more of a 4-4-1-1, and Mata was heavily outnumbered by Kroos and Schweinsteiger - which made it difficult for him to link up with Drogba.

Very similar to the Manchester United vs. Liverpool match that I had attended earlier this season, Kroos and Schweinsteiger were able to boss the midfield in much the same way that Scholes and Carrick were able to versus Liverpool.  Playing with their two best passers in tandem in front of Bayern's back four, they were able to keep a great rhythm and flow - keeping their dangerous attacking players involved by moving the ball and switching things out, while also joining up at the right time.

The combination of Schweinsteiger and Kroos making Mata and Co. chase in midfield, as well as the addition of the dynamic Muller, saw Bayern own the midfield battle for most of the match.  They were very unlucky to not have scored in the first half, with both Robben and Gomez missing genuine scoring chances.  Bayern's ability to take advantage of their numerical advantage in midfield - playing in the gaps and finding 2 v. 1 combinations - saw them dictate the tempo for most of the match.

Muller's attacking pressure that saw him initiate 4-5 scoring chances in the final 20 minutes of regulation was eventually rewarded, as he got on the end of a cross to score what appeared to be the eventual game-winner.

Muller eventually was substituted to bring on more steel in midfield with the inclusion of van Buyten, and without both Muller and an injured Ribery, and where defensive cover appeared were used to counter Chelsea's introduction of Torres and Malouda, Chelesa lost some of their momentum as well. 

Even with less attacking pressure and Chelsea chasing the game, you didn't think Chelsea would be able to even things until their corner kick in the 88th minute, where Didier Drogba became the star with his cracker of a header to put the match into extra time.

Drogba's dramatic goal, coupled with Cech's dramatic saves of PKs during the extra time and in PKs, saw perhaps the last stand of Mourinho's Chelsea - Drogba, Cech and Ashley Cole all were key contributors to their tremendous result.  Not only did several members of Chelsea's old guard stand out, but the central defending pairing of Gary Cahill and David Luiz continued to put out fires and snuff out scoring chances - providing a lynchpin for Chelsea's spin for years to come.

The 2012 UCL final will go straight to 'instant classic' level, and had all the things you want to see in a match of this caliber - great goals, tremendous PK saves, and a tactical chess match that allowed tacticians to appreciate the challenges that go with managing a game of this magnitude.

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