UCL Preview: Chelsea vs Bayern Munich

Two teams that regularly feature in the latter stages of European competitions, the shared history of both Chelsea and Bayern Munich is a short but storied one. Their 2020 fixtures will no doubt be played in the shadow of the 2012 Champions League final, the highest point of Chelsea’s history but a harrowing memory for any and all Bayern fans.

For context, this match is less about a team that beat another team in a final but more about the manner in which Chelsea won or, more accurately, how Bayern lost. The 2012 fixture, for the uninitiated, took place in Bayern’s home stadium, the Allianz Arena, and was the culmination of two very disappointing seasons for both clubs. Chelsea had initially began with the supposed second-coming of Mourinho — the suave André Villas-Boas of Portugal. However, after a string of of poor performances and a straining relationship with both his players and the board, Villas-Boas was sacked. Having fallen out of contention for the Champions League qualification spots in the league, the only option they had was to win the whole thing.

One of AVB’s parting gifts was a 3:1 defeat at the hands of Napoli; a game where Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ashely Cole were all benched for seemingly no reason. Whether this was done as a protest by Villas-Boas, an attempt to permanently sully Chelsea’s chances in lieu of his inevitable sacking remains to be seen. But this was AVB’s final European match in charge of Chelsea and one that certainly put the interim coach Roberto Di Matteo and the team as a whole in a difficult position. Despite this, and with the help of a late goal from Frank Lampard, of all people, Chelsea reclaimed the deficit in the second leg and took the game to extra time, progressing thanks to a Branislav Ivanović winner.

Chelsea won the 2012 final on penalties, a victory that atoned for the unsuccessful rainy spot kicks of Moscow in 2008. John Terry, of course, integral in both. As a result of winning, Chelsea were able to attract players that effortlessly fit in such as Eden Hazard, Oscar and César Azpilicueta, as well as gain automatic qualification to the competition the following year. The problem that they encountered in 2012/13 was their grouping with a strong Juventus and the soon-to-be-picked apart Shakhtar Donetsk. Third place Chelsea were relegated to the Europa League despite winning, drawing and losing the same amount of matches as Donetsk — their third place finish came having conceded two more goals than the Ukrainian outfit. Chelsea went on to win the Europa League, once again thanks to a late Ivanović goal. Outside of this, the manager that helped them edge past Barcelona and secure their Champions League victory, Roberto Di Matteo, was sacked by November after failing to build upon the successes experienced at the end of the previous season.

After their Europa League win in 2013, they turned back the clock to welcome José Mourinho for his second spell. What started promisingly with a semi-final run in the Champions League turned sour within three seasons. Mourinho was sacked in December of 2015 with Chelsea in 16th place. After the close of the season, Italy manager Antonio Conte was announced as the official successor and was responsible for a dramatic shift in the way teams across England approached every game. “Will he be able to adapt to the English game” was quickly rebuffed with “the English game will adapt to him”. After strong-arming every team in England to play with a three-man backline, Conte’s second season saw an unusual dismissal of Diego Costa, via a famously typo’d text message, thanking him “for the seasono [sic]”. His replacements were the less tenacious and certainly less prolific Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata. After a comparatively disappointing seasono, Conte was sacked by Chelsea despite, as some would argue, revolutionising English football in the space of a month. This sacking came at the cost of £26.6 million. After being relieved of his duties, he was replaced by the equally Italian if outrageously more stubborn Maurizio Sarri.

Sarri arrived at Chelsea on the 14th of July 2018. By 16th of June 2019, he had won the Europa League, finished third in one of the most fiercely competitive Premier League campaigns in recent history and left the club for Juventus.

Somewhere between these dates, Chelsea paid a record £71 million for a goalkeeper in Kepa Arrizabalaga, brought in Sarri star-man Jorginho for £50 million, American prodigy Christian Pulisic for £57 million, sold Eden Hazard to Real Madrid, loaned Alvaro Morata to Atletico Madrid with the option to buy, loaned Tiemoué Bakayoko to Monaco with the option to buy, sold David Luiz to Arsenal and, most importantly, incurred a transfer ban for both the Summer 2019 and Winter 2020 windows. Now with former captain Frank Lampard in charge, Chelsea have managed to stumble their way to an element of consistency and normality.

For years, it was unclear as to what Chelsea were chasing. Long term success, of course, but the state of flux, the complete lack of continuity, the constant changing of the guard, changing of the attack… if long term success was what they were looking for, they were going about it the wrong way. In many ways, the transfer ban was a blessing in disguise as it allowed for the rise of promising talents that would have otherwise faded into perennial loan obscurity. Callum Hudson-Odoi, Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Fikayo Tomori all fit the mould of players that would joined the almost Italian-ly long list of loanees to never make a meaningful senior appearance. With Young Frank in charge — and also with no option but to rely on those already there — Chelsea fans now have a sense of what is to come in the following years.

While many expected him to struggle, Lampard has already shown enough promise to warrant a traditionally tetchy second season. The only really noticeable detriment that Chelsea have is their defensive shortcomings. To wit, Kepa Arrizabalaga was bought in as the most expensive goalkeeper in the world, but two seasons on from his arrival, his departure seems almost imminent, almost definitely at a loss. In a respectable 4th position in the league and finishing in their Champions League group above last season’s dark horse Ajax, their defensive shortcomings have been somewhat hidden by the performances of Abraham and Pulisic. But in 36 total games, they have only been able to stop their opponents from scoring 7 times. Unfortunately for them, their opponent in the round of 16 have Robert Lewandowski leading the line.

Bayern Munich’s route to the 2012 final was possibly a touch more positive than Chelsea’s. Having maintained their manager from day 1, Bayern were able to squeeze past the dominant Real Madrid on penalties in the semi-finals, due to a spot kick from Arjen Robben in regular time and the winning penalty from Bastian Schweinsteiger. Bayern’s other penalty takers that day were David Alaba, Mario Gomez, captain Phillipp Lahm and Toni Kroos, who was starting to establish himself as someone that Bayern could rely on now and, in theory, in the future. Despite the latter two having their shots saved, Bayern made it to the final, affectionately dubbed the Finale dahoam by the Bavarians. This was an opportunity for Bayern to rectify their inadequacies and salvage something from an otherwise lacklustre season, finishing second to Dortmund in all other competitions. Against a weakened and partially suspended Chelsea team, there was no way Bayern could lose. This was their chance to make up for the missed opportunity against Inter Milan two years prior and their opportunity to have a fairytale victory in not just their home country but their home stadium.

For many Bayern fans, what happened in 2012 was and remains an unspeakable horror. “Beaten in their own backyard” on penalties, coming as a result of an equalising Didier Drogba header, minutes after what seemed like a winning goal from local hero Thomas Müller. For the players and staff, it is still a difficult subject. Arjen Robben, supposed villain that night, has called it a “nightmare”. German media outlets described it as “an accident” and “a farce”.

Whether it was through anger, embarrassment or shame, Bayern Munich subsequently attacked the 2012/13 season by becoming the most dominant team in Europe, playing every match with the intention of pushing any discussion of that final as far away as possible. There is not much left to be said about what this team had; speed, hunger, determination and skill created a total dominance and the belief that with every game they played, they simply could not lose. This was not even something that was built over the course of the year; from the start of the season, Bayern demonstrated an anger and desire to win every match, never settling for anything less. The pay-off was a 4:0 aggregate win against Juventus, a 7:0 aggregate win against Barcelona and a 2:1 victory in a hard-fought final against worthy adversary Borussia Dortmund. The only outliers from this season were home defeats to Bayer Leverkusen and Arsenal as well as a 3:1 defeat to BATE Borisov. The history books will remember that game forever.

Since their 2012/13 victory, Bayern have not been on the ascension in terms of Champions League performances, but have, instead, slowly declined. Not quite as dramatically or as EKG-esque as Chelsea but it is certainly visible. Their appointment of Pep Guardiola helped to improve the players but not necessarily build on the results that Heynckes’s second season produced. While fans lamented the three successive semi-final knock outs, they have only managed this feat once since Pep left. Last year’s early exit at the hands of Liverpool highlighted several weaknesses in the squad such as a lack of firepower outside of striker Robert Lewandowski. It may have also acted as a catalyst for the departure of Niko Kovač.

Kovač joined Bayern after seasons of varying success under Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. A slightly more home-grown, almost hipster type of appointment; not a big name but someone who had done well with the, thanks to him, firmly mid-table and recently qualified to Europe Eintracht Frankfurt. What started off promising quickly became difficult and hard fought. Many fans were never on board with the idea of a defensive coach; a problem made even more apparent when defensive weaknesses were greatly highlighted.

Despite his job seemingly always on the line, Kovač certainly helped to provide one very memorable moment which came earlier in this season’s group stage: a 7:2 victory against Tottenham Hotspur. It is unusual that a manager could go from a victory as resounding as that to being out of the job within a month, however, time is a flat circle and no matter how a manager does, they are only as good as their last at-bat. Just ask Chelsea.

Under Hansi Flick, Bayern look to be a new, energetic team focused on attacking, having managed to reduce the regular concession of goals by a significant way. Considering the club spent upwards of €130 million on a rejuvenated backline, a few clean sheets here and there is the least they could ask for.

But it was not the defence that necessarily needed addressing. While Jérôme Boateng has fallen from his unbelievable high, Niklas Süle and Mats Hummels provided the Bavarian outfits with one of the best second halves to a season in their history. Despite this, Bayern continued in signing Lucas Hernandez for a club record of €80 million and Benjamin Pavard, defensive-everyman, from Stuttgart. With these additions, Hummels’ position was less than guaranteed and he left for Dortmund.

After the promise of an overhaul and rebuild, it was believed that Bayern would permanently say goodbye to Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben and the Bavarian attack would be reinvented for the first time in 10 years. The world and their dog then saw the club turning their attention to Leroy Sané. It was not subtle. Having tried their best to court him away from Manchester City, the club had to acquiesce to him staying there due to an injury to his ACL. Instead, the rebuild was truncated before it really began. Instead of Sané to bolster the attack, Bayern bought in Ivan Perišić and Philippe Coutinho, both on loan. Both have performed adequately at times and unconvincingly at others, but neither have brought the same sort of direct flair that Bayern have been missing since Ribéry and Robben hit their mid 30s, something that many believe Sané would have brought.

With that being said, it is not as if Bayern are lacking firepower. They graduated top of their class in Group B, scoring 24 goals (41% of which came against Tottenham), all without losing a game. All without looking like they would lose a game. Serge Gnabry’s 4 goals against Spurs is something that all teams should be wary of, Thomas Müller has already registered 15 assists this season and Robert Lewandowski looks to be playing the best football of his life, as a top contender for the European Golden Boot. For all intents and purposes, Bayern look like the favourites.

What could possibly go wrong?

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