As Martin Tyler crowned Chelsea Football Club’s greatest ever achievement in 2012, his words served as the cherry on top of a cake whose foundations were eight years in the making. The adventure was indeed fraught with danger. Fate wove its merry thread into every match, every ebb and flow and every defining moment.
Fast forward nine years and the Blues are back again. Longer than they may have wanted to wait, this journey has come about very differently. Measured, professional, precise, and deserved – the Blues return in a manner less reliant on fate and more on the one facet synonymous with storied sides of days past: quality. It has been a road carefully travelled, but Chelsea are back in the Final, back for Old Big Ears.
The Group Stage: Dynamite Defense Brings No Defeats
Matchday 1: Chelsea 0 – 0 Sevilla (October 20th, Stamford Bridge)
Handed a relatively favourable draw in a group with Sevilla, Rennes and Krasnodar, the Blues began the group stage as early favourites to qualify. Six-time Europa League champions Sevilla were the first opponents, providing the stiffest test in the first match.
Having conceded eight goals in the four league matches before this European match, then manager Frank Lampard clearly began with a plan to set up resolutely.in a 4-2-3-1. Counter-acting Sevilla’s attacking 4-3-3, the Blues gave up possession for much of the match. Sevilla used wingers Lucas Ocampos and Suso to drive at their opponents to try and carve out opportunities for striker Luuk De Jong.
Restricted to just six attempts and none worthy of note, Sevilla were kept at arm’s length. A debutant in the competition, new goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, was excellent. Regularly repelling the Spanish side’s attacks, he looked to have immediately justified the £20m spent to acquire him from fellow Group E side Rennes.
As it was, his fellow new signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner couldn’t help their teammates in attack break the deadlock. Both sides seemed content to settle for a draw and beginning the group phase on a solid footing.
Matchday 2: Krasnodar 0 – 4 Chelsea (October 28th, Krasnodar Stadium)
As much as the first matchday brought a measured, reserved defensive mindset, the second match saw Chelsea look to take the game to their opponents. Facing a Krasnodar team who took their place in their first ever group stage, the Blues looked to capitalize on their greater experience.
Granted that the Russian side gave as good as they got for the duration match, ultimately Chelsea’s quality told. Playing in a more attacking 4-3-3, the Londoners almost got an early lead through a Jorginho penalty that hit the upright and stayed out. The Blues persisted, though, and took the lead through a Callum Hudson-Odoi effort that dribbled its way under Krasnodar ‘keeper Safonov.
With the scores level deep into the second half, Chelsea looked to increase their advantage against tiring opponents. After winning the first penalty, Timo Werner elected to take the second after a Krasnodar defender was adjudged to have handled a Christian Pulisic effort. Werner duly slotted the penalty.
Following the second, Hakim Ziyech netted his first goal with a customarily assured finish before Pulisic helped himself to a goal to make it 4-0. A comfortable outing in the end for the Blues it proved to be, but they were kept honest by the newcomers.
Matchday 3: Chelsea 3 – 0 Rennes (4th November, Stamford Bridge)
The Edouard Mendy derby! Just weeks after leaving Rennes for new club Chelsea, the Senegalese stopper took on his former side at his new home. Resorting to a more defensively sound 4-2-3-1 for this encounter, manager Lampard was eager not to give up much ground and take control of the group with a win.
From the off, the French side were not overawed by their more favoured opponents. Particularly dangerous from balls into the box that troubled their former goalkeeper without bringing about a shot on target.
Early on, though, Timo Werner’s quick thinking and equally fast feet brought about a penalty. Brazilian defender Dalbert was unlucky to give away a penalty as he moved to clear the ball before catching Werner. The German number eleven stepped up to score again.
If Rennes were unlucky for the first, they were doubly unlucky for the second. Moving to block an incoming Tammy Abraham shot, the ball caught Dalbert on the thigh before bouncing up and hitting his arm. A VAR review gave Chelsea the penalty and, cruelly, saw the Rennes left back get a second yellow for an early shower. Thoroughly up against it, Rennes had no hope of pegging Chelsea back. In control for much of the second half, Chelsea sealed the win when Abraham met a delightful Reece James cross with a crisp first-time finish.
Slowly, a pattern started to develop in West London. A resolute defense yet to concede and a developing attack saw Chelsea begin to grow into the competition.
Matchday 4: Rennes 1 – 2 Chelsea (November 24th, Roazhon Park)
Unlike the return match three weeks earlier, this was a far closer encounter that saw Chelsea’s defense significantly tested. Possessing the talented Belgian Jeremy Doku from the start, Rennes had a lot more zip and dynamism about their attacking play in this match.
To begin, though, Chelsea made the running and should have been in front after barely four minutes. After a neat exchange down the right, winger Callum Hudson-Odoi sent in an inviting cross that Timo Werner hooked over from three yards in front of a gaping net.
Not to be deterred, though, the Blues hit the front when the evergreen Mason Mount won the ball off Doku in his own half. The England midfielder split the Rennes defense with a raking through ball which Hudson-Odoi dispatched past opposing ‘keeper Gomis with aplomb. Rather up against it to that point, it shifted the momentum somewhat.
The two sides would trade blows until deep in the game when Mendy rescued Chelsea with a crucial double save before Serhou Guirassy equalized from another delicious Benjamin Bourigeaud corner. In the dying embers of the match, a hero was needed. After a Werner shot was expertly saved but ballooned up in the Rennes penalty area, Olivier Giroud rose highest to head in a crucial winner!
Chelsea rode their luck at times in this match but Giroud’s heroics proved decisive. Though their defense was breached for the first time, the Blues showed a doggedness and determination to win that would serve them well in later matches.
Matchday 5: Sevilla 0 – 4 Chelsea (December 2nd, Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan)
This match was about one man and one man only: Olivier Giroud. Not Chelsea’s first choice striker for much of the season as Abraham and Werner got the lion’s share of the opportunities, the Frenchman tossed all aside to become the first Chelsea player ever to score four in one match in the European Cup.
That it came at the home of arguably the most difficult of Chelsea’s three group stage adversaries is testament to Giroud’s performance. The number eighteen’s first goal came from a midfield dive and pass from Kai Havertz. Cutting inside his man, Giroud curled a left footed finish into the left-hand corner.
His second came in the second half. Played through by Mateo Kovacic, Giroud chipped a right footed effort past opposing goalkeeper Bono. Completing his perfect hat-trick twenty minutes later, the striker headed in an N’Golo Kante cross before slotting a penalty with less than ten minutes to go. It was the perfect night for a perfect performer in Giroud who helped Chelsea qualify and secure top spot in the group.
Their five matches to this point were negotiated with the minimum of fuss. Lampard had hit on a mixture between defense and attack that gave his team enough defensive protection and attacking verve to be effective.
Matchday 6: Chelsea 1 – 1 Krasnodar (December 8th, Stamford Bridge)
For the last match of the group stages, Lampard fielded a much-changed side. With group victory already secured, youngsters Faustino Anjorin and Billy Gilmour made the starting lineup.
Much like the first match, Krasnodar gave a great account of themselves and pushed the Blues on their own patch. Taking the game to Chelsea, the Russian side took the lead halfway through the first half. Former Newcastle United midfielder Remy Cabella placed the ball expertly into the bottom corner of Kepa Arizabalaga’s net to give his side a deserved lead.
Not five minutes later, Tammy Abraham was felled in the penalty area allowing Jorginho to score the equalizer from the spot. With Krasnodar unable to qualify for the knockout stages and certain of a Europa League place as well as Chelsea already being group winners, both sides seemed content to settle for a draw.
As far as the group stage went, Chelsea’s record read: four wins, two draws and just two goals conceded. A calculated, professional, and polished six matches set Chelsea up firmly to take on Atletico Madrid in the round of 16 with the belief of going deep in the competition.
The Knockout Stages: Cool, Calm and Collected
Round of 16 – Atletico Madrid
After a well negotiated group stage, the margins thinned and there would be no room for error. In the draw for the knockouts, Chelsea’s fortune fountain seemingly ran dry as they drew La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid.
It was a case of out with the old and in with the new again as new manager Thomas Tuchel took the helm for Chelsea’s UCL knockout campaign. If there was one word to describe the two ties against Atletico Madrid it was: control.
One of the deadliest teams in Europe in transition from attack to defense, Atletico toiled for ninety minutes. The only worthwhile opportunities for them came through two breaks from Joao Felix, who was cleverly fouled twice by Jorginho and Mason Mount.
Both Blues would miss the second leg, but the sacrifice proved necessary to halt Felix and the livewire Luis Suarez. Atletico wouldn’t muster one shot on target in the whole game. By contrast, Chelsea kept probing and found a winner in fortuitous fashion. A clearance from Mario Hermoso spooned up in the air and ‘hero of Seville’ Olivier Giroud produced an audacious overhead kick to settle the first leg.
The return leg at Stamford Bridge began much like the first. Chelsea set up to put the squeeze on Atletico, suffocating their attacks. Atletico tried to take the game to Chelsea in search of an away goal leveller.
The most significant moment in this leg came in the first half as Atletico attacked. An attempted cross by right back Kieran Trippier was blocked by Timo Werner. Kai Havertz picked up the ball, drove at the Atletico defense before slipping Werner in. The number eleven crossed for the waiting Hakim Ziyech who slid in a composed finish. 1-0 on the night and 2-0 on aggregate.
The more desperate Atletico got, the more resolute, calm, and patient Chelsea were. The Blues looked to lay traps for their Spanish opponents that would allow a fast counterattack. As the game began to fade, one trap sprung as Christian Pulisic slipped in substitute Emerson to make it 2-0 in the 94th minute.
For all their purported underdog status, Chelsea swatted aside the best team in Spain with relative ease. Based off a controlled, highly structured defense and a razor-sharp counterattack, they had a platform to be ‘a team no one wants to play against’ as new manager Tuchel quipped upon his arrival.
FT: Chelsea 3-0 Atletico Madrid (Aggregate)
Quarter Final – FC Porto
Ahead of this tie, Chelsea received what many in the football world viewed as the ‘favourable’ draw by getting then-reigning Portuguese champions Porto. Granted they did avoid the likes of Bayern Munich, Paris-Saint Germain and Manchester City, it would nonetheless still be a very tough match against an aggressive pressing side.
Playing at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, home of Sevilla and the venue for their 4-0 triumph earlier on in the season, Tuchel looked to take advantage of Chelsea’s familiar back three system to widen the pitch and quell the impact of Porto’s intense, aggressive pressing style of play.
Dominating the ball in the early stages, the deadlock was broken by a piece of individual brilliance by Mason Mount. Receiving the ball from Jorginho, he turned his marker in a manner that would have made Johan Cruyff proud before drilling a low finish past Marchesin for his first Champions League goal.
Much of the rest of the match saw Chelsea dominate the ball and frustrate Porto. The Blues kept the Dragons at arm’s length before a late second came courtesy of wingback Ben Chilwell.
Channeling his inner Fernando Torres, Chilwell latched onto a loose ball and some absent-mindedness in the Porto defense to round the ‘keeper and make it 2-0. In reality, it could have been more but the Blues had a sizeable advantage to take into the ‘home’ leg at the same venue.
As Champions League ties go, this was not one to write home about. A classic tactical tussle where Porto laboured to get opportunities and Chelsea simply looked to stifle and protect, highlights were hard to come by.
With goalmouth action hard to come by and Porto spending more time on the ball, Chelsea’s only outlet was to relieve pressure. Someone who stood up manfully to this was Christian Pulisic whose running power and ability to draw fouls ensured his side kept the tie under control. Comparisons are odious but many a Blue fan saw an American version of the legendary number ten Eden Hazard in Pulisic on that night.
As the game drew to an uninspiring 0-0 conclusion, Porto finally got reward for their persistence. A simply spectacular overhead kick from Mehdi Taremi rescued some pride for Sergio Conceicao’s beaten Dragons.
Yet another professional, measured performance saw Chelsea into the Semi Finals for the first time since 2014.
FT: Chelsea 2-1 FC Porto (Aggregate)
Semi-Final – Real Madrid
By this point in the competition, Thomas Tuchel’s side boasted an enviable defensive record both in Europe and domestically. And who better to test this against than thirteen-time European Champions Real Madrid?
The contrast between the two sides before the tie could not be starker: youth against experience, prodigy against pedigree, daring dreamers against serial winners. Needless to say, Los Merengues went into this match as firm favourites.
If Chelsea were the underdogs, it certainly didn’t show in Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane’s team selection for the first leg. Playing at home, Zizou set his side up in a wholly unfamiliar back three in order to match his opponents.
In the opening exchanges, the novelty of this formation showed. Chelsea picked holes Los Blancos’ midfield and almost led inside ten minutes. Were it not for some unfortunate Timo Werner finishing from point blank range, the Blues may have rattled their opponents early on.
Nevertheless, they didn’t have to wait much longer for the opener. Gathering a ball over the top from Antonio Rudiger crisply, the hero of the previous round’s second leg, Pulisic, danced and feinted his way through the Real defense before caressing a finish in between two desperate defenders.
Chelsea exerted control, but one always got the sense that Real were never out of the game. The reason? One man: Karim Benzema. A truly world class operator, Benzema fired a warning shot onto the post after 23 minutes. Just five minutes later, he would have his equalizer. Casemiro heads a dangerous lofted Marcelo cross into the path of Benzema who takes one touch and buries the ball past Mendy. 1-1.
For the rest of the match, Chelsea probed for a second as did Real. Much of the attacking play was undone by a torrential shower. In the end, both teams settled for the stalemate ahead of a crucial second leg at Stamford Bridge.
Up against an away goal, Zidane abandoned his troublesome tactical adjustment and resorted to his tried and tested 4-3-3. For Chelsea, head coach Tuchel stuck with his back three with one adjustment up top: Kai Havertz.
The young German would prove to be an inspired choice alongside the brilliant N’Golo Kanté. The first notable action of the game, though, would come from Real’s talisman Benzema. With his back to goal, the Frenchman turned and fired a quick shot which Edouard Mendy did brilliantly to save low down to his left. Benzema had another chance via a header minutes later, which Mendy repelled ably. The Senegalese stopper was to prove the Madrid man’s nemesis for the rest of the night, thwarting him and his teammates at every opportunity.
Down the other end, Chelsea had a chance in a rapid succession of passes. Started by Kanté who evaded two Madrid players before laying a pass on to Werner, the diminutive genius received it back and laid another on to Havertz in space. The young German proceeded to audaciously chip former Blue Thibaut Courtois. After crashing off the crossbar, Timo Werner was alive to head a dropping ball into an empty net. 1-0 Chelsea on the night, 2-1 on aggregate.
Chelsea would then have a flurry of goalmouth chances and one-on-one opportunities. Try as they might, though, it seemed the ball would not go in. Be it Havertz from a header that hit the crossbar, from a one-on-one that he finished lazily or from another one-on-one that Kanté saw saved, the Blues couldn’t get the all-important third.
The more this persisted, the more anxiety that Real would equalize set in. Owing to Chelsea’s measured, calm and structured defense in front of a brilliant Mendy, though, this never materialized.
And eventually, the winner did come. And only one man could score it.
2-0 on the night, 3-1 on aggregate – Chelsea were back in the Champions League Final.
FT: Chelsea 3-1 Real Madrid (Aggregate)
Chelsea’s previous two sojourns to the European Cup Final had elements of fate woven intricately into their stories. In 2008, it was the eventual overcoming of archnemesis Liverpool who proved the major stumbling block through the latter 2000s. In 2012, it was an unspoken sense of destiny as the Blues rode their luck against Napoli and Barcelona to qualify for the Final.
This year, Chelsea have the same sense of destiny, the same underdog story that underpinned 2012. What they also have, though, is a sense of quality that underpinned 2008 too. For every challenge that came their way, the team answered it with a noticeable sense of patience, structure and assurance that characterizes all great teams.
As Martin Tyler said at the climax of the 2012 Final, the adventure then was fraught with danger. In Manchester City, the biggest danger awaits.
This young side have proven on their road to this Final that courage, composure and belief in the face of danger can often lead to the greatest of adventures.
Written and edited by Dan Hill (@idanknow05)