It’s May 19th 2012. Chelsea have somehow found themselves in the Champions League final despite a journey through the knockout rounds that was fraught with danger. Even the group stage could have proven fatal to Chelsea’s European jaunt as they needed a vintage Didier Drogba performance to make it past Valencia.
The history of Chelsea in the Champions League goes way beyond that, though. The journey to their second final included semi-final defeats to Monaco, Liverpool (twice), Barcelona, and a heart-breaking last 16 loss to Inter. The worst of all, of course, a penalty shootout defeat in the final to Manchester United in 2008. Chelsea had faced controversy and conceded crushing last minute goals, they had been the most consistently successful in the Champions League of any team in the 21st century without lifting the trophy.
From John Terry’s ill-fated penalty to Luis Garcia’s goal that wasn’t, from being denied penalties against Barcelona to the mind games of Jose Mourinho, the Champions League had been nothing but drama and infinite pain for Chelsea. Somehow that all changed in 2012, Chelsea cashed in years of luck and found a way even from the greatest moments of adversity.
An epic Stamford Bridge comeback against Napoli, a tense victory over Benfica and the most remarkable rear-guard action anyone could imagine against Barcelona sent Chelsea to the Allianz Arena for their final hurdle. Under the stewardship of a former fan-favourite as a player, but an inexperienced caretaker manager, in Roberto di Matteo, Chelsea had arrived at the greatest footballing occasion in the world. They had done it with their weakest squad in over a decade, they had done it in a year when their league form could not even keep them in top four contention.
Then, with 82 minutes gone in the match, disaster struck Chelsea’s Champions League campaign once again. Just as it had done when John Terry was sent off at the Camp Nou, just as it had when they lost to Bayer Leverkusen in the group stage, and as it had when Ezequiel Lavezzi put Napoli 3-1 up in the first leg of the last 16. Chelsea’s heads dropped, fans with scarves and flags draped around them were left dejected as Thomas Muller put Bayern ahead and a packed Allianz roared. Everyone thought it was over, Chelsea’s dreams had been crushed by a bounced back-post header after holding firm, albeit deep in their own half, for over 80 minutes.
The players picked themselves up, Di Matteo brought on Fernando Torres, and Frank Lampard attempted to rouse his team-mates. The Blues had not given in just yet, there was time, but not much of it. Juup Heynckes removed goalscorer Muller and brought on Daniel van Buyten to shore up his defence, but that could not stop what was about to happen.
Torres won a corner after an enterprising dribble down Chelsea’s right. Juan Mata trotted over to whip the ball in with his left foot and Chelsea sent the artillery into Bayern’s box, Drogba was joined by Torres, David Luiz and Gary Cahill, this was perhaps their final shot.
A perfect near-post delivery from Mata had pace and drift, it was hanging there awaiting a header. Rushing towards the ball, his eyes fully fixed on his target, was Drogba. There was still so much to do, his shoulders were facing the corner flag as he leapt towards the ball. A nudge in the back could not stop him, a footballing force of nature, as he rose above everyone else leaving Bayern defenders in his wake.
The nudge, in fact, probably helped propel his body to the right angle, and with a powerful twist of his torso, Drogba unleashed a header like no other. One that shot past the near post and into the top-corner with such velocity that not even Manuel Neuer had a chance.
Chelsea’s iconic striker had done it again. Even in his glistening Chelsea career including countless crucial goals, none had been as important or as majestic as this. One of the best headers of the ball in a generation had saved the best until what was likely his last game in a Chelsea shirt.
Although Drogba had a chance in the dying embers of normal time to score a match winning free-kick, we were set for extra time: the free-kick was clearly too much of a fairy tale for the footballing gods to allow.
Even in the additional 30 minutes Chelsea had to ride their luck. Drogba gave away a penalty for a misplaced tackle, but Petr Cech was the hero to prevent Arjen Robben. The Blues sat deep again, holding on for dear life until the last whistle went to confirm penalties.
Chelsea, sticking to the narrative of their entire season, went behind in the shootout. Mata’s weak kick was saved by Neuer, heaping pressure on the following Chelsea takers. Luiz rifled one into the top corner and Lampard fired down the middle to keep Chelsea in the game. Meanwhile, Cech was diving the right way but not quite stopping the German side’s efforts.
Then came the veteran Ivica Olic. The Croatian was hesitant, he put his penalty at the ideal height to Cech’s left and Chelsea’s towering goalkeeper leapt to make the save. What a save it was.
Ashley Cole stepped up for Chelsea with all the swagger that you would expect and caressed it into the corner past Neuer.
Now it was Bastian Schweinsteiger. A Bayern Munich legend and one of the best midfielders in world football. His fiddling with the ball, his twitching, and his stuttered run up all meant one thing: a missed penalty. Though it still required a desperate flying Cech fingertip to guarantee it went off the post.
The excitement for every Chelsea fan went through the roof. Yet one thing remained at the back of the mind: that Terry penalty in Moscow. Drogba was the man to step up with potentially his last kick of a ball for Chelsea. Drogba would have been taking the penalty Terry missed in Moscow had he not been sent off, just in case the occasion needed any more backstory.
A short run-up heightened the concern, but the cool Drogba only needed two steps to send Neuer the wrong way and roll the ball into the bottom-left corner. One man, one night, one trophy and two Hollywood moments that will forever be remembered by everyone at Chelsea.
Chelsea have had a turbulent time since their glorious night in Munich, but a Premier League title and a Europa League have followed with another Premier League title likely only weeks away under Antonio Conte. None of that may have happened without Drogba’s heroism in May 2012. The Champions League was the Holy Grail for Chelsea, it is now the foundations for the club to consolidate themselves as one of Europe’s top clubs.
Most importantly of all, though, Chelsea will always be European Champions. Stamford Bridge will always be the home of London’s first European Champions; and that is an honour that can never be taken away.