From the despair of Naples to the joy of Munich

To understand the man, sometimes you have to have met him as a boy.

To understand the full scale of Chelsea’s achievement in winning the Champions League in such dramatic style on Saturday night, you had to be in the bowels of the Stadio San Paulo, Naples, late on the night of February 21.

There, the club’s smartly dressed stars slunk out to their coach, barely exchanging a word with each other.

They were in disgrace, having been abjectly humiliated by their opponents; a 3-1 defeat was flattering in the extreme.

Fast-forward three months and only the suits are the same. Chelsea’s players were hugging each other, shouting and blinking in disbelief as they finally left the stadium in Munich at around 1.45am local time.

This has perhaps been the story to end all Champions League stories. Forget the drama of the Nou Camp in 1999; Manchester United were clearly the best side in Europe that year.

Discard, also, Liverpool’s incredible comeback against AC Milan in 2005; Rafael Benitez’s men had played well on the European stage all season.

This was a victory by a team that simply could not and should not have won. They have been down on their knees time and again. They seemingly have to lose before they can even consider that they might win.

Chelsea are not the best team in Europe; in fact, it is debatable if they are even the best team in London, having finished behind Arsenal and Tottenham — although their victory here knocked the latter out of next season’s Champions League.

Yet what they may lack in players they make up for with raw hunger and desire, as Frank Lampard described after Didier Drogba signed off from life at Chelsea in the perfect style by scoring the late equaliser and firing home the decisive penalty in the shoot-out.

“It’s the spirit of the place,” said Lampard when asked how Chelsea had won. “The key players have been here a long time and we want to win, we are determined to win, and in the dressing room we have a tough group. We struggled earlier in the season, confidence was low, but there is a real determination here and when times are hard we dig in. If you had asked me three months ago if we would win this competition I would have laughed. But we have done.”

And that really is all that counts. Roman Abramovich bought this club so that he could win the Champions League. That they did so by almost playing a Catenaccio defensive style is rather ironic; the Russian has always been desperate to be entertained. Now, functionality comes first.

In Lampard, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole and the indefatigable Drogba there are generals, leaders of men who can assess a situation and almost always find a way out of trouble. Andre Villas-Boas was left at the wayside as a result, with Roberto Di Matteo coming in to replace the Portuguese. The result has been a sharp upturn in form with the players having a larger say. And, as was the case when Avram Grant replaced Jose Mourinho in 2008, it has worked.

Then they were a penalty kick away from winning the competition in Moscow, and, in their eyes, justice was served here.

Bayern were manifestly the better side, but if the superior team won every time then there would be no point in watching. Chelsea were dogged in defence, making light of the four players they were missing through suspension.

True, they defended almost constantly, but that is an art form in itself. Bayern were charged with finding a way through, and were unable to do so.

Arjen Robben flitted dangerously, Franck Ribery was a constant menace. But perhaps the quietest of the hosts’ front three, Thomas Muller, was the man to make the difference as he headed home at the back post with just seven minutes left.

Chelsea turned to their leaders, and they were not found wanting. Drogba pulled them level with a bullet-header from Juan Mata’s corner. Then Cech saved Robben’s penalty after a foul by the Ivorian on Ribery.

It was breathless stuff, but Bayern were growing nervous; this game was meant to be pre-ordained, but with Lampard doing a fine job in midfield against Bastian Schweinsteiger it was not.

Cech repelled penalties from Ivica Olic and Schweinsteiger in the shoot-out before Drogba swept home the decisive penalty.

The visitors celebrated wildly, with John Terry putting on a kit to lift the trophy with Lampard despite his suspension. It was surreal. This team should have lost to Napoli, could have been defeated by Benfica and needed a miracle to get past Barcelona. The clamours for Di Matteo, the miracle worker, to be rewarded with the permanent job were loud and clear.

That is a choice for Abramovich to make now.

We have seen his Chelsea move from being boys to adults; now, with this victory they have become old men, capping off glorious careers. In this case, fact is far stranger than fiction, and Chelsea’s history-makers must be saluted for making the impossible possible.


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