by Gautam Viswanathan Apr 23, 2012 14:42 IST
Mario Gomez's last-minute strike at the Allianz Arena meant Bayern Munich would take a precious one-goal lead against Real Madrid, who have been imperious at the Santiago Bernabeu this season. In fact, their loss against the Bavarian side was their first defeat in this season's competition, and Jupp Heynckes will most likely be telling his team that going to the Spanish capital and getting a result will probably be one of the hardest games in the careers of Bayern's players so far.
Ditto for Chelsea, who will take a one-goal lead to Barcelona courtesy of Didier Drogba's first half strike in stoppage time. Chelsea matched the current holders of the Champions League blow for blow, and although Barcelona's players had vastly more of the ball – 72 percent possession at the final whistle, but at one point it was in the eighties – Chelsea defended stoutly and manfully.
If the quartet thought they would get a reprieve domestically, they were sorely mistaken.
Although Bayern were second in the league and had lost to Dortmund in what was a title deciding game, there was still a mathematical chance of them clinching the Bundesliga. Die Roten were away at Werder Bremen and came away with a 2-1 win at the Weserstadion, but they were made to work very hard for their win. Naldo scored for the hosts first in the 50th minute but put through his own net nineteen minutes from time, and Franck Ribery scored in the last minute of normal time to ensure Bayern picked up all three points. In the end, however, the result proved to be a dead rubber as Dortmund wrapped up the Bundesliga a day later after they beat Borussia Monchengladbach 2-0.
A mentally drained Chelsea made the short trip across London to face Arsenal in the battle for the coveted Champions League spots. Di Matteo overhauled his starting XI, electing to retain only Petr Cech, John Terry and Gary Cahill from Wednesday night. The match became increasingly stretched as the game wore on, both sides had plenty of chances on target, but neither could convert as the match finished goalless. Results elsewhere meant that while Arsenal clung on to third place, Chelsea remained in sixth, four points away from fourth place. The fact that Roberto di Matteo rested most of the side that played against Barcelona means that they will be fresh for the trip to Spain.
But the most high-profile match-up of the weekend featured the other two Champions League semi-finalists. Barcelona and Real Madrid faced off at the Nou Camp with the Spanish Primera title hanging in the balance. A win for Barcelona would mean that the gap between themselves and Real would be reduced to just one point, while Real would all but seal the title if they were to secure victory. Jose Mourinho's Madrid had never beaten Barcelona in the league before (just the one win in the Copa del Rey final) and unfortunately in Spain, a Real Madrid manager's status is measured in part by how many times he can beat Barcelona in a calendar year, the location being immaterial. 'The Special One' however, didn't care, and his team meticulously began to probe forward towards Barcelona's goal. It came in the 17th minute through Sami Khedira, stunning the Catalan faithful. It took until the 70th minute for the hosts to respond, as Alexis Sanchez scored a very messy goal to pull Barca level.
But Madrid responded instantly, Cristiano Ronaldo once again silencing the home crowd as a world-class Mesut Ozil pass found the Portuguese wizard, who calmly stroked the ball past an onrushing Victor Valdes. Mourinho used a template similar to the one employed in Munich, and defended in a fashion similar to the way his Inter team did when they visited the Camp Nou two seasons ago. Of all the times to chalk up a league victory against Real's arch-rivals in their own backyard, now was the best, and rest assured, Mourinho will stick to the same game plan against Bayern.
All four sides will silence their critics by successfully negotiating their way past the Champions League semis.
Chelsea will see this as an opportunity to end what has been a wretched season by their standards and win Europe's most coveted club prize. Getting through to the final would mean they have beaten Barcelona, the best side in the world.
The Blaugrana would have faced plenty of flak over the last week or so, having lost two games on the trot. Their lack of a Plan B has seen them come undone over the past week, and to them, beating Chelsea and getting through to the final means they've shown enough collective strength, despite losing key players such as David Villa and Eric Abidal to put their woes behind them and get back on track.
Bayern Munich for too long now have been stuck with the tag of 'FC Hollywood', a club with plenty of style and this match will be fraught with emotions for Jupp Heynckes, who won Real the Champions League in 1998 before being fired from the Real manager's post.
And for Mourinho, who asked his critics to judge him on the basis of his performances in his second season, it's a path to yet another trophy for one of modern football's most successful coaches. Real Madrid's presence in the final could mean that they are about to add to their nine European Cups.
Reaching the final of the Champions League would have a special meaning for every club in its own way. For Chelsea, it is a chance to silence their critics and show them just how far this team has come. For Bayern, it's a chance to cast aside defeat in the race for the Bundesliga and show that they are indeed European Giants.
Real Madrid will be using this as a springboard to bring back the trophy-laden years of the galacticos, and what could open the floodgates to several more trophies under Mourinho, while for Barcelona, it means they could well be the first side in the history of the game to successfully defend the Champions League trophy.
Come Tuesday and Wednesday, for some players, it will be the most important game of their careers so far. For others, it will be another opportunity to challenge the fates that have denied them in the past. As forty four players walk on to the turf six hundred kilometres apart in Spain, they know that they are ninety minutes away from a place in the Champions League Final.
And that is reason enough to give it their all.
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