Mikel counts on unity to bring ultimate prize
Midfielder believes Di Matteo's ability to bring players together will be rewarded
Any fatalists with a Chelsea allegiance must wonder if the club are ever destined to become champions of Europe. Get to within one penalty kick of succeeding and your captain slips over and misses; make it to the final again with the two hot favourites out of contention and you find the game is somehow an away match, from which at least four key performers will be missing.
Of course, players and staff cannot afford to think like that. So at the Cobham training ground on Friday midfielder John Obi Mikel and the manager who has resurrected his season, Roberto Di Matteo, were grasping whatever positives they could from a far from ideal situation. In Mikel's case, the conversation also included the clearest explanation yet of what was wrong under the stewardship of Andre Villas-Boas and how his successor has brought a fractured squad back together again. This new spirit, he believes, represents Chelsea's best hope of overcoming Bayern Munich on their own turf on Saturday night.
"I ended last season well and at the start of this season I was one of the key players and there were a few rotations early on," he said. "It was kind of difficult, you play and the manager leaves you out and you don't know the reason. Things like this went through everyone's head not just me. Everyone didn't know what was happening. You come into training thinking 'shall I train well because I don't know if I'm going to be playing at the weekend?'. Things like that just went on and on. The communication was not right. Now things are more stable, we have a manager that understands the game and played the game and speaks to everyone and treats everyone the same, treats John Terry like he treats every other young player. I think that's what has brought all of us together. Now nobody is moaning or upset when they are left out. This togetherness is what we were lacking before."
After a costly mistake in the home defeat by Liverpool, Mikel did not start another League game until Villas-Boas was sacked three months later. Di Matteo has shown vastly more confidence, playing him in both legs of the semi-final against Barcelona, the FA Cup semi-final and the final. With Raul Meireles and Ramires suspended, as well as defenders Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, he is therefore entitled to think that a place in the side next weekend should be his; unlike the 2008 final against Manchester United when he sat and watched as the Moscow skies wept for Terry and Avram Grant.
"I had only just come into the club but after that I could see what the Champions' League meant to the players," he said. "And now we have a chance to put things right. We are now one week away from the greatest win ever for this club and we want to make history and be legends for this club. Hopefully on the 19th if luck and God help us we will make that history. If we can pull off this win it'll be the greatest achievement ever forthis club."
One victory in six Champions' League away games this season does not bode well, especially against a side who have beaten all seven of their visitors, including Real Madrid, Manchester City and Marseilles; nor does the notion of facing a front four of Arjen Robben, Thomas Müller, Franck Ribéry and Mario Gomez without Terry and Ivanovic in defence, and with neither Gary Cahill nor David Luiz likely to be 100 per cent fit. The Germans have problems in defence too, as Holger Badstuber, David Alaba (both suspended) and Daniel van Buyten (injured) will all be missing. They would be formidable opponents, however, even on neutral ground. At their own Arena, they are understandably favourites for a fifth European Cup triumph, a haul which would leave them level with Liverpool and behind only Real Madrid and Milan in the European pantheon.
The hope in the Chelsea camp is that pressure will stifle the home side, just as it did when Roma lost the final in their own Olympic Stadium to Liverpool on penalties 28 years ago. "We'll play with less pressure, have a chance to express ourselves and do what we want to do a bit better," Mikel said, before going on to give away more than his manager may have wanted about Chelsea's tactics: "We're gonna make sure we keep ourselves in the game, until the later stages. If we can grab a goal in the early stages it's gonna be good but we have to make sure we don't concede early. I think it'll be a very exciting game, a difficult game for us but for them as well.
"I think it's going to be massive missing John Terry, he's the leader. Everyone knows how he leads the team. Ivanovic as well – what a great player he's become over the years. What can I say about Ramires, he has been fantastic ever since he joined this club. Meireles as well. It is the biggest game of our life and I hope the players who step into others' shoes want to make this club proud. That's why we have to go in and make sure we win it for them and for the club."
Bayern's former Blue: Robben always causes trouble
In three years at Chelsea, Arjen Robben was often a controversial figure, a certain physical frailty tending to obscure some fine wing-play and important goals.
So it was no surprise that controversy should follow Robben at Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, for whom he will be a key player in a Champions' League final against several of his old London team-mates. He is, after all, a Dutch footballer.
"He's not the best friend of all the players, and not the easiest one, because he is very egocentric," says Patrick Strasser, a journalist for Munich's Abendzeitung. "It was a bit surprising that the club wanted himto sign a new contract but he did last week, until 2015."
Identified closely at Chelsea with the mould-breaking Jose Mourinho, under whom he won two League titles, an FA Cup and a League Cup in the space of three years, Robben was actually signed, like Petr Cech, before the new manager arrived in the summer of 2004.
Recognised as one of the very best young talents in Holland for his work with Groningen and then PSV Eindhoven, he would have gone to Manchester United had they been prepared to pay the price.
Chelsea offered far more for him – presumably in wages too – and secured him for £12m, his provocative explanation being: "I've gone there because Chelsea are on the rise. I feel that maybe Manchester United's best years are now behind them."
Injured in a pre-season friendly, he did not make his debut until November, and missed out on the climax to the season as well after taking a knock at Blackburn. But with Damien Duff on the other flank, he became an important cog in Mourinho's wheel when fit.
His second season was probably his most effective as he adjusted to the physical demands of English football and Chelsea retained their title, and by the end of his third and an FA Cup final win over United, Real Madrid were keen suitors. They eventually paid £24m and Robben was successful enough in another title-winning season.
But somehow he was never quite galactico quality and when the more glamorous Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka were recruited a year later, it was time to move on again, this time to Bayern. Scoring on debut, as he had for Chelsea, secured immediate popularity and by the end of the season he had a championship medal from a fourth different country and had been voted Germany's Footballer of the Year.
Last season, familiar injury problems resurfaced – a hamstring problem from the World Cup not having been solved – and to Bayern's annoyance he was unable to play until January. Borussia Dortmund took Bayern's title and have kept it this season, Robben playing an unfortunate part in the key game of the season recently, when with Bayern a goal down he missed a penalty and then a glorious late chance.
"Maybe a turning point was the second leg of the Champions' League semi-final against Madrid when Bayern were 2-0 down," said Patrick Strasser. "He took a penalty just one week after the Dortmund miss and scored it.
"In January and February he had a lot of problems with [Bayern coach] Jupp Heynckes, who was giving some players a rest after the winter break. For three games in a row Robben was sidelined and in his world he can never sit on the bench, so that was causing problems. He wasn't complaining directly but he was like a child who was promised an ice-cream and did not get it."
Unlike his Chelsea days he now plays on the right, regularly cutting inside on his left foot and achieving a notable tally for a wide player of 55 goals in 89 games – the latest in the otherwise disappointing 5-2 defeat by Dortmund in last night's German Cup final.
England v Germany in European Cup Finals
Bayern Munich 2 Leeds United 0 (1975, Paris): Even Bayern's captain Franz Beckenbauer admitted Leeds were the better side and they should have had at least one penalty, when he tripped Allan Clarke. Peter Lorimer had a goal controversially disallowed, and late strikes by Franz Roth and Gerd Müller caused crowd trouble that led to a two-year ban for Leeds.
Liverpool 3 Borussia Mönchengladbach 1 (1977, Rome): 25,000 fans descended on Rome for Liverpool's first European Cup win. Borussia, with Bayern's manager Jupp Heynckes in the side, equalised Terry McDermott's goal but Tommy Smith of all people headed in a corner. Phil Neal scored a penalty after Kevin Keegan, in his last match for the club, was fouled.
Nottingham Forest 1 Hamburg 0 (1980, Madrid): Comfortable winners against Malmo the previous season, albeit by a single goal, Forest played counter-attack in the absence of Trevor Francis to frustrate Hamburg, who had Keegan up front. Leaving only Garry Birtles upfield, Brian Clough's side scored through John Robertson and held on thanks to fine saves by Peter Shilton.
Aston Villa 1 Bayern Munich 0 (1982, Rotterdam): The rest of the continent was bored with English teams by the time of a sixth successive victory in the final, the last five of them by 1-0. Villa's greatest achievement was notable for manager Ron Saunders having resigned in mid-season; young goalkeeper Nigel Spink coming on as an early substitute and Peter Withe's winning goal.
Manchester United 2 Bayern Munich 1 (1999, Barcelona): The neutrals thought Bayern had been the better team for the 85 minutes in which they led through Mario Basler. Sir Alex Ferguson, attempting to add to a domestic Double, replaced Jesper Blomqvist and Andy Cole with Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who both scored from corners in added time. Trebles all round.
England 18 finals: Won 11 (Liverpool 5, Manchester Utd 3, Nottingham Forest 2, Aston Villa 1), lost 7 (Liverpool 2, Man Utd 2, Arsenal 1, Chelsea 1, Leeds 1).
Germany 14 finals: Won 6 (Bayern 4, Borussia Dortmund 1, Hamburg 1), lost 8 (Bayern 4, Bayer Leverkusen 1, Borussia 1, Eintracht Frankfurt 1, Hamburg 1).
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