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Friday, May 18, 2012
Looking ahead to Chelsea vs. Bayern


It's the last hurrah of the European club season, the Champions League final. Bayern Munich will be looking to polish its already shiny CV in Europe (four European Cup titles and nine final appearances), while Chelsea will hope to win its first title in only its second appearance in the final. So as we count down to the match at the Allianz Arena, we asked a number of football analysts to give us their impressions of the final. Here's what they had to say, in alphabetical order.

Roger Bennett, ESPN columnist

This final promises to be a rollicking tactical battle. Bayern Munich will employ the width that allowed them to shock Real Madrid. Chelsea will seek to press relentlessly and suffocate Bayern's passing game, while pounding the ball through the middle.

Much has been made of Bayern's home-field advantage. I believe it may turn out to be anything but. Playing at home can create a crushing pressure born of expectation. The Germans may be heavy favorites but Chelsea's Champions League odyssey has been giddily odds-defying. Just ask Barcelona and Napoli fans how difficult it was to kill Chelsea off. On the European stage, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard & Co. have proved to be as tenacious as ragweed.

The fact that Chelsea is shorn of so many first-choice starters will only increase its backs-to-the-wall, us-against-the-world mentality. With all the pressure on its hosts, I would not bet against Chelsea. Spurs fans should be afraid. Very afraid.

John Brewin, Soccernet senior editor

And so to Munich, where Chelsea has the chance to achieve Roman Abramovich's heart's desire with possibly the worst squad he has paid for since Claudio Ranieri was manager at Stamford Bridge.

Home advantage clearly favors Bayern, and it has thrown much at getting to a final at its own home. But the record of teams in their own backyard on such occasions is mixed. Real Madrid's all-conquerors of the European Cup's early years lifted the trophy in the Bernabeu in 1957, and Helenio Herrera's Inter won at San Siro in 1965, but Roma lost to Liverpool in the Stadio Olimpico in 1984.

Aside from its obvious gravitas, this will be no normal home game for Bayern. The "UEFA Family" of sponsors, media and neutrals will make up a high proportion of the attendance in the Allianz Arena, and those home fans lucky enough to get a ticket are bound to be racked by nerves. And one of football supporting's great cliches is that the away fans make the most noise anyway. Chelsea fans, there by hook or by crook perhaps, have the chance to roar their depleted heroes to an unlikely victory.

Michael Cox, Zonal Marking, freelance contributor, ESPN.com

Bayern is clearly the stronger team, but tactically this might suit Roberto Di Matteo's side. Dortmund comfortably defeated Bayern at the weekend by staying compact and then breaking quickly past the Bayern full backs, and that's essentially what Chelsea did so effectively against Barcelona, so I expect Di Matteo's strategy to be similar.

Of particular interest is the fact that, without the suspended Luiz Gustavo, Jupp Heynckes will be forced to field Toni Kroos and Bastian Schweinsteiger deep in midfield together. They're both ball-playing midfielders and intelligent passers, which has both positive and negative consequences. With Chelsea sitting deep, Bayern will have two clever playmakers able to penetrate Chelsea's defensive lines -- but it's likely to be vulnerable to Chelsea counterattacks without a proper tackler in that zone. It's certain that Bayern will dominate the ball, but it has to be very careful at defensive transitions, for Chelsea has the right ingredients to spoil the party in Munich.

David Hirshey, ESPN freelance columnist

I mean, isn't this just a classic "Lesser of Two Evils" match for me? On one hand, I'm constitutionally incapable of rooting for a team whose midfield general's nickname is "Schweini" -- or Piggy. It's not that I'm a militant vegan, it's just that anything German not named "Heidi Klum" (and, beginning next season, "Lukas Podolski") has always given me the willies.

On the other hand, there's John Terry.

Just because he's not allowed to humiliate himself again in a Champions League final doesn't obviate my lifelong loathing of the Blues and their odious captain. I suppose if I had my way, the earth beneath the Allianz Arena would open up and swallow both teams. But even that has a downside, because it would mean Spurs would automatically qualify for next year's tournament. Since keeping the Lilywhites from defiling the CL is for the planet's greater good, I'm forced at Bud Light-point to hope that the Blues roast Schweini & Co. this weekend, but that Terry slips off the podium while lifting the trophy and suffers a concussion that keeps him out of the Euros.

Chelsea 1-0.

James Horncastle, freelance writer

A lot has been made about the home advantage Bayern Munich will supposedly enjoy in this year's Champions League final. Historically speaking, this has happened on only three other occasions. Real Madrid overcame Fiorentina at the Bernabeu in 1957, Inter conquered Benfica at San Siro in 1965, and more recently Roma held Liverpool to a draw at the Stadio Olimpico in 1984 only to lose agonizingly in a penalty shootout.

The omens aren't good for Chelsea. "Having the fans behind us and being encouraged at every street corner since our qualification in Madrid gives us confidence," insists Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. "Knowing the place is an advantage because we have our habits like staying in the same hotel, taking the same bus route to the stadium, the dressing rooms … " The question is: Will Bayern make it count, or will it get too comfortable?

Graham Hunter, freelance contributor

There have been three previous Champions League or European Cup (as was) finals in Munich, and on each occasion the competition ended up celebrating a first-time winner -- Nottingham Forest in 1979, Marseille in 1993 and Borussia Dortmund four years later.

Football fans being the superstitious lot that they are, there is much talk of how Chelsea, never having won the Champions Cup, is now somehow "fated" to lift it against serial winners Bayern Munich this weekend. Go figure.

However, despite the fact that only Milan and Benfica have lost more European Cup finals than Bayern (five compared to four) since the competition was inaugurated in 1955, Jupp Heynckes' side deserves to be called the favorite. Not just for home advantage but because, on form, they have a frightening array of goal power, while the Blues are defensively troubled (no John Terry or Branislav Ivanovic, and Gary Cahill and David Luiz seeking to get fit).

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the experience and determination of football warriors like Petr Cech, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba might -- just might -- produce a surprise.

An open game, goals, fun and a surprise winner. There you are. And I'm not even superstitious!

Simon Kuper, co-author of "Soccernomics" (get an updated version here)

Amid all the fuss over Barcelona and Madrid these past couple of years, not many have noticed which is the only club to have reached two of the past three Champions League finals. Bayern Munich is the rising silent force of European soccer.

The Bundesliga's lucrative new television deal will propel German clubs even higher: From 2013-14, Sky TV will pay 628 million euros a year to broadcast Bundesliga games. That's 52 percent more than it pays now. Throw in the best generation of German players since 1990 and you've really got something. Already Germany has taken third place from Italy in the UEFA coefficients rankings, based on their clubs' performances in European competitions these past five years. Southern Europe's economic crisis is hitting all Italian and Spanish clubs except perhaps Barcelona and Madrid, which are too global to notice.

When the world works logically, Western Europe's biggest and richest country should house Europe's best soccer teams. We're starting to move that way.

James Tyler, ESPN.com

I have a funny feeling that Chelsea will sneak this. Where this weird premonition came from is unclear, though let's face it, we've been spoiled rotten this season across Europe, what with Montpellier's PSG-busting brilliance, Real's first La Liga win in four seasons, Borussia Dortmund's phenomenal counterattacking verve and Juve's unbeaten Serie A season. Yet looking deeper, there are a number of factors that make me think the Blues are likely to sneak a Champions League victory.

For one, there's the pressure. The Blues largely tanked in the EPL down the stretch, being brushed aside by Newcastle and then decimated by Liverpool, because for Roberto "Low Expectations, High Rewards" Di Matteo & Co., the goal was obvious: Get the FA Cup, and get the Champions League. As for Bayern, it was undressed by Borussia Dortmund (for the fifth time on the trot) in the German Cup final Saturday, and having already lost the league weeks ago, the struggling Bundesliga demigods are in danger of finishing without a trophy this season. In short, Di Matteo's living a charmed life, while Jupp Heynckes is wound very tight.

Form-wise, neither side is in tremendous shape, and English sides tend to thrive in nervy, physical dogfights. That half the Bayern side will have one eye on remaining fit for the Euros also might come into play.

Then there's the storyline. It would be so Istanbul '05 of the Blues to heroically overcome a superior (on paper) side, even though both will be without key players -- you sense that Chelsea's lack of Ramires in the middle will be hardest-felt on both sides -- and after seeing what the soccer gods rolled out for us on the final day of the Premier League season, I wouldn't be surprised to see something equally jaw-dropping at the Allianz Arena.

So: pressure, form, the impending specter of the Euros (in which Germany will surely be expected to succeed, if not outright dominate) and the power of a good narrative.

Chelsea 2, Bayern 1 after extra time. Make it a game winner after the 115th minute for good measure.

Ravi Ubha, ESPN.com

Chelsea fans, either way, won't soon forget the date May 19, 2012. If Chelsea beats Bayern Munich, the club lands its maiden Champions League title, the piece of silverware billionaire owner Roman Abramovich has desperately craved. There's no way the Russian would be able to sack interim manager Roberto di Matteo.

But if Chelsea loses to Bayern, as the bookies expect, di Matteo is likely gone, and the Blues could turn into a team battling for third or fourth spot in the Premier League in the years to come instead of challenging for top honors. Which star players would want to join Chelsea next season without the promise of Champions League football?More is at stake for Chelsea than Bayern.

Bayern to win, 2-1.