LIAM MACKEY: The year of the dark horse

It’s nigh on impossible to consider the likely outcome of tonight’s Champions League final in Munich without referencing what Roberto Mancini rightly dubbed “a crazy season” in the Premier League.

It was Alex Ferguson, with his innate feel for turf of two kinds, who had voiced the thought going into the final day that Manchester City might do something “stupid” and, specifically, that they might “do a Devon Loch”.

What he could never have envisioned, of course, is that while City would indeed commit their own version of a spectacular belly-flop only yards from the finishing post, they would miraculously get back on their feet and go on to win the title race by a nose with one final thrilling charge to the line.

That the decisive game of the season should have such a sensational conclusion was entirely in keeping with the madcap nature of the Premier League as a whole, the campaign yielding up a whole host of such weirdly improbable scorelines — think United 8 Arsenal 2, City 6 United 1, Chelsea 3 Arsenal 5, Arsenal 5 Spurs 2, Everton 4 United 4 — that, from just a cursory glance at the stats, you could be forgiven for thinking we’d all time-travelled back to the 1920s.

And then there was the contagion effect of English uncertainty across the whole Eurozone, from Manchester’s united failure even to make a fist of the Europa League to Chelsea’s astonishing progress to tonight’s Champions League final in the Allianz Arena.

Had it not been for Sergio Aguero’s unforgettable intervention at the death in the Etihad last Sunday, the defining miracle of the 2011/12 club season would have been Chelsea’s semi-final triumph in the Nou Camp, an against-all-odds 2-2 draw which dumped ‘the world’s greatest side’ out of the competition on their own sacred turf and then, with the subsequent departure of Pep Guardiola, even heralded an era’s end in Barcelona.

And all this brought about by a team which was two goals and one man down on the night, under the control of a supposed stop-gap manager and struggling to escape from all those months of turmoil which, ultimately, would make this a Premier League season to forget at Stamford Bridge.

In short, Chelsea have found salvation as a cup team this year, though even beating Liverpool to win the FA Cup pales by comparison with their achievement in negotiating the combination of high-altitude marathon and sprint which is the Champions League.

And though it’s hard to muster up any real affection for a team which has John Terry as its totem, there are a number of good reasons why it would be nice to see the Blues complete the miracle tonight.

After his knees-up in Catalonia, JT won’t be on the pitch for a start and, anyway, there is no just reason why his more admirable colleagues — impressive characters like Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and Didier Drogba — should be made to pay for the skipper’s crimes and misdemeanours.

Hang on, did I just call Didier Drogba an impressive character? It seems I did. Yes, he has his own long rap-sheet of red cards and fits of the head-staggers but I would still have a lot of time for old Drogs. Against Barca, his antics nearly drove us all to distraction but I suspect that, behind the annoying histrionics, there was method to his madness, if only because having a lie-down every now and then bought his team some breathing space against the side which we all understood to be the best-equipped in the world at wearing down opponents, mentally and physically.

And when Drogba remains upright and focused, he is still one of the most formidable strikers in world football, a rare amalgam of physicality and finesse, even as time runs out on the 34-year-old’s career. On what is almost certainly going to be his last shot at European glory I, for one, wouldn’t begrudge him a winner’s medal tonight.

And, should that come to pass, I would also take a kind of perverse pleasure in the fact that it took an emergency appointment as manager to prove to Roman Abramovich that all his money and all his best-laid plans and all his interference can never be a match for the unfashionably old school idea of empowering a football man to do what a football man has to do.

And, now, having said all that, I must confess that I’m pretty certain Chelsea will fall short again at the final hurdle tonight. Assuming home advantage proves an inspiration rather than a burden, Munich — with flying wingers Robben and Ribery raiding on the flanks, Schweinsteiger controlling midfield and Gomez a reliable goal-getter upfront — look to have simply too much man-for-man superiority. So, if it’s not simply insane to try to predict anything at the end of the most unpredictable season in living memory, I’ll go for Bayern to win the Champions League.

But, just to be on the safe side, I might also have a few bob on the ghost of E.S.B. — that being the horse who took advantage of Devon Loch’s downfall to win the 1956 National.

But, of course, you all knew that.



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