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The Uefa Champions League final is the biggest stage of them all in club football – the “Grand Theatre” where a player can forge immortality.
Few ever get this opportunity, and this year the privilege goes to the players of Bayern Munich – the hosts, coincidentally, for this year’s championship game – and English survivors Chelsea, who few would have expected to get this far.
As is always the case on such occasions, it’s the want of those in the know to predict who the favourites are. In this regard the German hosts have to be favoured, even with Chelsea’s heroics this season.
Both sides, though, go into Saturday’s grand finale substantially hamstrung by suspensions to key players.
In all, seven players will miss the final. Bayern are missing exciting leftback David Alaba, German international centreback Holger Badstuber and midfield workhorse Luis Gustavo. Chelsea, on the other hand, will be without inspirational captain John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires as well as Raul Meireles – all of whom have been critical in the Blues’ unlikely run to the Allianz Arena showpiece.
For Chelsea, Saturday’s showdown – with its accompanying suspensions – is fraught with strategic riddles in the chess-match that is always a Champions League final.
Chelsea simultaneously not only have to employ a form of counterattack, but also have to somehow impose their style if they are to have any hopes of claiming victory.
As former Chelsea boss Avram Grant said in the build-up, this final will come down to who takes their chances and this truer for Roberto Di Matteo’s side, as most question marks surround them.
With so many suspensions and injuries doubts it has, for example, become a point of interest whether Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres will start up-front together. It has been mooted that Di Matteo has tried this in training. For the record, Drogba and Torres haven’t started together in the 19 games since Di Matteo took over at Stamford Bridge. In total the two have been on the pitch simultaneously on only seven occasions – for a total of 132 minutes.
That stat aside, it would represent a significant risk on the part of Di Matteo to experiment with two out-and-out strikers, especially in what is essentially an away match.
It is more likely he will go with a variant of Chelsea’s tested 4-3-3.
With both Ramires and Meireles out it’s intriguing how Chelsea’s midfield, where the game could be won or lost, will shape up. One would suspect Michael Essien will return to the fold, with Mikel sitting in front of the back four and Frank Lampard the furthest forward of the central midfield trio.
Mikel has been outstanding since his reintroduction into the team by Di Matteo and Chelsea’s rise can quite reasonably be linked to his commanding form. Teams have cultures, and Chelsea is the team of Claude Makelele fame. In his time Jose Mourinho established a blueprint that this current group of players are most comfortable with – that is, a midfield three with an anchorman at its defensive base.
This is always Chelsea’s most prudent option.
Having Essien in there as part of this trio will also assist leftback Ashley Cole.
The right flank is probably Bayern’s most productive channel with Philipp Lahm and Arjen Robben forming a world-class wing combination. If Juan Mata is, as expected, posted out on the left, consistently reliable protection for Cole will have to be sourced from somewhere within Chelsea’s setup. Mata is a responsible footballer but he doesn’t enjoy defending. When he does he isn’t a natural defender and could give away fouls in dangerous areas.
Mikel and Essien in tandem would also, crucially, allow Lampard to enjoy a less restricted role, a role that requires a little less defensive responsibility. Let’s face it, the deeper pair of Chelsea midfielders is unlikely to venture much, and if Lampard is one of the two it will diminish his strengths.
The defence is the real crisis area for Di Matteo.
All logic says David Luiz and Gary Cahill will start in central defence, even if they’ve both been struggling with hamstring injuries. There are simply no other viable options for a game of this magnitude. Of course, a worst case scenario would be starting both Luiz and Cahill and then 30 minutes into the game being forced into substitutions, a makeshift defence – with only one more change available over possibly 120 minutes.
But it’s a risk Di Matteo has to take such is the offensive power and mobility Bayern possess. Makeshift centrebacks are not an option.