The Greatest Season Ever!

2011-12 season of top tier European football

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I am a Chelsea fan. Let that be clear. I started watching football around 2006–7. And since EPL was/is the most popular football league, it would always be a toss up between Manchester United or Chelsea. (Arsenal and Liverpool can talk about history all they want.) I always liked supporting the underdogs. And my friends were overwhelmingly ManU supporters, at least that’s what they called themselves anyway. So, I didn’t nudge towards Chelsea because they won. No. But because they always tried to grind it out to win.

Coming to 2012. A year when the world was supposed to end in some Mayan apocalypse (and didn’t). Chelsea had appointed yet another manager after yet another disappointing season. But the new manager: Andre Villas-Boas looked like Mourinho and perhaps the results would be similar? Either way, I kept the usual tab on results. And then I was forced to ignore them. They were playing at their worst possible. Before that season, Chelsea had never finished below the top 4 since 2000. And I had never watched them place outside the top 3.

They somehow barely qualified from the group stages in CL and hopes of winning the Premier League had long evaporated. In fact, I, like most Chelsea fans had resigned ourselves towards another trophyless season. What would be worse was our inability to play Champions League next year. Still, there was hope. Villas-Boas was fired. Matteo, his deputy took charge for the remaining 3 months while Roman Abramovich, the owner, started scouting for another coach for the next season.

Chelsea’s season had ended early. Or so I thought. And then what happened was the greatest turnaround I witnessed. You may quibble here by referring to some obscure 1991/1999/2003 CL. But they were hardly this amazing.

I no longer cared what match Chelsea played anymore. Because they were not winning anyway! But I did go back to watch them later, especially the reruns. But I get those feels man, every single time!

When Villas-Boas left, Chelsea was well below Champions League positions and staring at a 3–1 deficit from the first leg to Napoli. Somehow, in the return leg, Chelsea equalised that score. It was 3–1 at Stamford Bridge at the end of 90 minutes at the end of both legs. And it had my faves with Terry, Lampard et al. contributing. So the match, which Napoli had thought been wrapped up after their goal at the Bridge was now taken to Extra Time. Penalties were not needed as Chelsea pumped in a fourth, to win the aggregate 5–4. Chelsea became the only English team to remain in the CL.

Benfica was next. The 2 legs were rather a sedate affair. Chelsea won 1–0 away. And then drew 1–1 at home. One extra goal by Benfica in the second leg at the Bridge and it would have been bye bye CL. Somehow though, Chelsea survived.

Semi Final lineups were Bayern vs Real. Barcelona vs Chelsea. Barcelona were the defending champions. Real under Mourinho were leading La Liga for the first time in like 4–5 years. Bayern had an awesome lineup as well, but were playing second fiddle to BVB in their domestic league. Chelsea was the lightweight here. Expected to be steam rolled by Barcelona.

In the mean time, Chelsea had moved up from 9th to 5th in the league. Participation in next year’s Champions League was a possibility. They had also progressed to the FA Cup semis. Amazing turnaround already for the season. Now with the form they were in, I expected them to get pummelled by Barca, who remember had won 7 trophies the previous season and were increasingly looking invincible. In fact Maradona had gone so far to say the Final line-up would be Real Madrid vs Barcelona.

However, what people forget was Chelsea was not always this bad in their form. They had reached 6 consecutive semi-finals! In 2009, Barcelona literally stole the semi-final against a far superior Chelsea to win the Champions League that season. It marked the beginning of their ascension. There would be retributions though. 2012 would be the answer. Barca had never beaten Chelsea. That record would remain untarnished.

Di Matteo took up a strategy to wall the defence realising the form of the players and the injuries. People not having watched Chelsea play before were amazed to see such defensive play. Angered by it perhaps. But it was the best thing to do under those circumstances. Chelsea blocked like mad. Every attack by Barca almost resulted in a goal. Yet, almost. Never quite. Just before the first half, Drogba somehow found the ball and scored. At the end of the first leg, with 76% possession Barcelona still lost to Chelsea who had 1 goal from 1 attempt. There would still remain the return leg.

In the midst of it though, Barcelona lost the El-Clasico to Real to lose 2 successive matches for the first time in over 2 years. Also effectively losing the Spanish league to Real. Return leg. Barcelona. Chelsea were defending like mad. Iniesta however found an outlet and scored at around the 30 min. mark. That was it. Aggregate was equal. Nou Camp roared. Then as an even bigger setback Terry was red carded. Wow! With a strategy to play 11–0–0, Chelsea had lost their biggest brick in the wall. 10 man Chelsea against Barcelona for 50+ minutes. And then Chelsea was torn apart with another goal. It was all over for Chelsea remarked the commentator. 1 man down. 2–1 down in aggregate. No way could this English team recover. Yet somehow before half-time, Chelsea put in a goal through Ramires, to leave the scores at 2–1. Ahead by away goals on aggregate. Which meant, Barcelona had to score, again. And Chelsea could go back to defending.

More drama was to follow. Drogba conceded a penalty which I felt was deeply unfair. Messi went to take it. And guess what, he skied it. He never scored against Chelsea. In the meantime, Barcelona kept attacking and being pushed away by the Chelsea defence which was still one player short, Petr Cech, who was playing like his last match and the crossbars. And then at the 90 minute mark, Torres who had just been substituted scored another to put the nail in Barcelona’s coffin. 2–2 at Nou Camp. 3–2 aggregate. Messi was crying. I was experiencing schadenfreude.

The stats next day read that Barcelona had 81% possession. And still lost on aggregate. Oh and Chelsea had 4 players suspended for the final including their captain. Plus a hell lot of injuries meant, Chelsea had to ask a kid (17 year old) to debut in the final! That was like a first in some 10–20 years. Yes! That is how makeshift the squad was!

Oh, and in the meantime, Chelsea went on to slam ‘King Kenny’ led Liverpool for an FA Cup victory. At least the season wouldn’t be trophyless. And Drogba had scored the winner like most other FA Cup finals. The usual. But they had finished the league sixth. They would not play in CL for the first time in like 10 years. Unless they won the final.

Bayern were way too strong according to sports commentators. And the final would be at the Allianz Arena, Bayern’s home ground. In fact, their fans croaked that they would win da. At home. No team before had done that. But the odds were high for Bayern to do so this time especially against a weakened and out of form Chelsea.

Yeah, I thought. With so many players suspended and injured, there was no way Chelsea could win. Yet, there was something magical about that season. Something inexplicable about how they had defied every odd to reach the finals. As if it was written in the stars. Heynckes, Bayern’s coach had predicted that without their core defenders (who were injured/suspended), Chelsea, couldn’t afford another defensive outing. But defense was what he got. They defended for 81 minutes before Muller pumped one past Cech. And it was devastating. Bayern acted like they had won the cup. Muller was substituted for a defender. Chelsea brought on Torres. They had 8 minutes to change the outcome of a tournament which was slipping away. Bayern had to hold for those 8.

Chelsea attacked for the first time that match. Torres’ persistence resulted in a corner. The first corner of the match for Chelsea. Bayern had already taken 12–13. Mata curled it and Drogba bulleted the ball in. The net reacted. As did the crowd. 1–1. 88 minutes. Allianz Arena was having a seizure. The effect had still not sunk in. And the commentator remarked, it had to be Drogba. It had to be. Because of him, Chelsea had lost the 2009 final. He had to step up in his last match for Chelsea. Yes. He would be leaving at the end of the season. Heynckes couldn’t believe it. Neither could I, actually. The match went to Extra time.

Lo. Drogba conceded another penalty. In Extra time! Who does that? Hero to villain in 10 minutes. Robben, ex-Chelsea player took it. Cech blocked it! Wow! I needed some whisky here! What were the odds of opponents missing penalties, 2 matches straight? Who cares? Chelsea were defying them anyway. The match petered on to penalties, with Chelsea somehow holding on despite some late Bayern onslaught.

1st shot. Bayern score. Mata misses for Chelsea! 1–0. In fact Bayern would go on to score the first 3. Score 3–1. English teams never won penalties. German teams always won them. Besides statistically, the team taking the first penalty won. But… Cech blocked the next. Chelsea scored. Score 3–3 at the end of 4 penalties. Schweinsteiger would take the final one. Cech pawed it away. Just. But enough. Drogba went up take take Chelsea’s final shot. Yes. He scored. With his final kick.

4–3 on penalties. 5–4 overall.

And that was the greatest comeback in a season. For any team. In any sport. This was not a team of nobodies who won. As popularised in most Hollywood flicks. It was a great team. Who had lost their way. Temporarily. And then they won. And that is what was amazing about that team! In fact, throughout the tournament not a single referee decision went in their favour. Penalties were awarded against them. Players were suspended. Others called injured. So, it would be cheap to reduce it to luck. That would be how Barcelona won in 2010. Or ManU won matches in the Ferguson era. This was a far greater exhibition of a back from the dead story. Matteo was the hero.

Any Chelsea fan would know, of course. Correction: Any football fan should.

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