Chelsea face their biggest game for nine years on Saturday – the Champions League final against Manchester City.
It’s the club’s biggest match since May 19, 2012. A date etched indelibly in the hearts and minds of all Chelsea supporters; the day Chelsea became the first London side to win the Champions League.
The Blues’ journey since that balmy night in Munich has been up and down to say the least. No doubt many supporters have wondered whether the club might reach another Champions League final, let alone win one.
And yet here we are, nine years since Chelsea lifted the trophy and hoping and praying that we can do it again.
Like 2012, Chelsea’s arrival at the business end of Europe’s premier competition has been somewhat improbable this season.
Under Frank Lampard, the Blues’ form went into a tailspin over Christmas and in January the Chelsea legend was sadly relieved of his duties and replaced by Thomas Tuchel.
It should not be forgotten, as Chelsea prepare for the Champions League final, that it was Lampard who guided the side out of the group stages, finishing top with four wins and two draws.
Chelsea had already been drawn against Atletico Madrid in the Round of 16 at the point of Lampard’s departure. It was the toughest for a group winner and not many genuinely believed we would get past the Spanish team who were La Liga leaders.
But Tuchel’s arrival heralded a tightening up of Chelsea’s leaky defence and a more robust and organised side emerged.
Chelsea made relatively short work of Atletico in the Round of 16, winning 3-0 on aggregate, and then dispatched Porto 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter-final.
Real Madrid awaited in the semi-final and Chelsea supporters wondered if they would face one of the most feared sides in Europe or a team on the wane. They would also face two former players in Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois.
In truth, Chelsea battered a team who were clearly on the wane and the eventual 3-1 aggregate score flattered Los Blancos.
For a side that had been eighth in the Premier League when Tuchel replaced Lampard and had not made it past the Round of 16 since 2015, Chelsea improbably reached their third Champions League final.
In 2012 Chelsea went into the final as underdogs, facing an experienced and talented Bayern Munich side in their own stadium.
On Saturday, the Blues will again be underdogs, facing a Man City side who recently cantered home to their third Premier League title in four seasons and a team hell-bent on lifting the Champions League for the first time in their history.
This has been Pep Guardiola’s mission since he joined City as manager in 2016. With the target in sight, City will be tough opposition even though Tuchel’s Chelsea have beaten them twice in the last six weeks.
In 2012, very few Chelsea supporters truly believed that an ageing side, whose best chance of lifting the Champions League trophy had seemingly come and gone, could beat Bayern in the final in their own stadium.
In addition, they were without ‘Captain, Leader, Legend’ John Terry. David Luiz and Gary Cahill were both carrying injuries and Branislav Ivanovic, like Terry, was suspended. Ryan Bertrand made his Champions League debut and only his 16th appearance for the club.
Chelsea had a £50million striker in Fernando Torres who had a serious case of the yips having scored only 12 times that season, but crucially the goal that got Chelsea to the final against Barcelona in the Camp Nou.
But as so often happens in finals, heroes emerge, as they did for Chelsea that night. Everyone points to Didier Drogba because of his equalising goal and crucial fifth penalty in the shoot-out. They look to Petr Cech for his penalty saves from Arjen Robben on 94 minutes and from Ivica Olic and Schweinsteiger in the shoot-out.
They give honourable mentions to Torres for winning the corner and Juan Mata who took it for Drogba to head the equaliser. They remember vividly the heroic one-legged defending from Luiz and Cahill.
However, the ‘man of the match that night was the unsung hero John Obi Mikel, playing in his customary defensive midfield position and detailed to shield the vulnerable Luiz and Cahill.
Many had derided Mikel since his Chelsea debut in 2006 as a poor man’s Claude Makelele. Makelele was so good the defensive midfield role was redefined as the ‘Makelele’ role.
Most saw Mikel as a blocker; someone to break up the play and pass it to more talented players such as Lampard, Michael Ballack and Joe Cole. There appeared to be no creativity to his play, even though he played as a number 10 or 8 for his national side, Nigeria, who he also captained.
Mikel rarely offered a goal threat. It took 282 games for him to score his first Premier League goal – against Fulham on September 21, 2013. So shocked and delighted were the Chelsea supporters that t-shirts were printed with “I was there when Mikel scored” with an accompanying song to match.
But against Bayern, in the Champions League final, Mikel stepped up and played the best match of his Chelsea career on the biggest night in the club’s history. His tenacity, will to win and dedication to the cause that night was truly lionhearted and this Chelsea supporter never uttered a bad word about him ever again: washed down with a large slice of humble pie.
Mikel was the definition of a ‘marmite’ player for Chelsea. You either loved him or hated him. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you either understood his well-defined role within the team or you did not.
Chelsea has a similar player in their ranks currently: Jorginho.
As a defensive midfielder, he offers none of Mikel’s tenacity, bite or energy to get up and down the pitch. As a creative player he seems similarly impotent to Mikel, his seven penalty goals making him Chelsea’s leading Premier League scorer notwithstanding.
And yet, every manager he has played under since he arrived at Chelsea in 2018 has played him regularly and he has even captained the side on occasion. They clearly know something we don’t.
It may be a case that Jorginho is as important a cog in the Chelsea wheel as Mikel was and he does a similarly important job for the team. This has been easier to see in the Champions League matches this season and his performances away to Atletico Madrid and at home to Real Madrid were outstanding.
Perhaps he is more suited to the pace of European football rather than the physical hurly-burly of the Premier League, where he is more likely to be closed down by terrier-like midfielders and has less time on the ball.
Who would bet against Jorginho putting in a man-of-the-match performance against Man City in Saturday’s final, managed by Pep Guardiola who coveted him before he signed for Chelsea?
There are other potential and improbable heroes for Chelsea too.
Could Timo Werner finally come up with a crucial match-winning goal? Could Kepa Arrizabalaga step up and save a penalty if called upon having looked like an outcast for most of the season? Could Billy Gilmour, like Ryan Bertrand before him, make an impression as a fresh-faced youngster?
Could Olivier Giroud score the penalty that wins Chelsea the Cup with his last kick of a football for the club? Or will the heroes turn out to be the more likely N’Golo Kante, Thiago Silva or Mason Mount?
None of us knows but we will find out for certain on Saturday evening. Chelsea will definitely need several heroes if they are to win their second Champions League trophy and finals so often provide an opportunity for the unlikeliest players to become heroes, just for one day.
David Chidgey is on the Board of the Chelsea Supporters’ Trust and presents the award-winning Chelsea FanCast every Monday & Friday available from Acast, ITunes, Spotify or chelseafancast.com.
Source by Football London