By Nikolai Mende
"In 2012, the Champions League final will be held at the Allianz Arena. And we want to be there!"
These were the words of Bayern president Uli Hoeness, who made perfectly clear the club's intent at the end of last season.
This Saturday that day will arrive for the German giants as Munich will host the most anticipated European match of the year: the grand finale of the Champions League between Bayern Munich and Chelsea. For both sides, victory would be an incredible relief after years of falling short of the ultimate prize. For Bayern especially, it's now or never to stamp their mark on history.
Coming full circle
Rewind to the summer of 2009 and there was optimism at Bayern: the club had a strong squad, and had brought in a world-class coach in the form of Louis van Gaal. The Dutch trainer was expected to give the club a clear plan and bring success that had been missing on an international level. After an experimental period under Jurgen Klinsmann, the club decided to pursue an experienced professional.
Things did not go as planned, and Bayern flopped at the beginning of the season. Then came Arjen Robben, an emergency signing from Real Madrid, and Van Gaal stabilised the team. Even so, FCB had their fair share of difficulty and needed a win against Juventus in Turin in order to advance to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. With a 4-1 victory, Bayern turned over a new leaf. Robben and Ivica Olic hit the form of their lives and breakout star Thomas Muller improved with each week as the Bavarians stormed to the Champions League final, only to lose to Inter, but claimed the domestic double. However, a disappointing 2010-11 season followed, and Van Gaal was dismissed with his side's hopes of Champions League qualification rapidly dwindling.
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Two years after their loss in the final to Inter, FCB are back in the limelight. Though they were outsiders in 2010 and relied on the heroics of Robben to drag them to the final, the German giants are in an entirely different situation now. Having outplayed Real Madrid in the semi-finals, they encounter Chelsea as favourites. And their motivation has never been higher: they could make history as the first team to win the Champions League in their own backyard.
In 2007, with the signing of Franck Ribery, a new era dawned in Munich, as much-needed flair was injected into the Bavarians' attacking game. The arrival of Robben two years later signalled a further breakthrough. And now Bayern are approaching the finish line of a marathon that has lasted several years. As club legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge explained: "A victory over Chelsea would be one of the greatest in the club's history." For the home-grown Bayern players, as well as the high-priced imports, there could be nothing better. If Philipp Lahm lifts the trophy on Saturday it will complete a long-term project. The players would be forever remembered as heroes in the mould of Stefan Effenberg, Elber and Oliver Kahn.
It's never been easier
All the signs point to a Bayern victory. They will play at home, and will go to the very limit to accomplish a dream that is now just 90 minutes away from being achieved. Both teams can complain about missing players. But the lack of regulars in the rearguard for a defensive-orientated Chelsea will hurt more than the absences for an attack-minded Bayern. The Germans have, in contrast to 2010 when Ribery was suspended, a complete attack available. And it's a forward line that is always a level higher when playing at home than it is on the road. Chelsea, meanwhile, had a campaign to forget in the Premier League, and must win the final in order to play in the Champions League next season.
On the European stage, the west Londoners have not yet earned a pedigree - despite once reaching the Champions League final. In each of their knockout ties this season, they were the weaker team. Against Napoli, they should have been eliminated after the first leg. Similarly, against Benfica, Chelsea were put under heavy pressure despite having an extra man for the final 50 minutes of the tie. And versus Barcelona, they had to ride their luck time and again.
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It's now or never
Bayern's salvation can be found in their attack. Chesea are missing John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, who are irreplaceable players at this level. David Luiz and Gary Cahill, meanwhile, are back in training and expect to play in the final. However, both are short of match practice.
The loss of Ramires and Raul Meireles, two important pillars in the midfield, will be particularly damaging for Chelsea. Both can cover the hard yards, and Ramires can increase the tempo of the game and punish opponents on the counterattack. As for their greatest weapon, Didier Drogba, the Blues will likely have to resort to long balls: the English side's midfield this season has been anything but creative. At the other end of the pitch, Mario Gomez will relish the chance to become the hero against Chelsea's weakened centre-backs, as Ribery will too against second-choice right-back Jose Bosingwa. If the hosts' performance at all resembles what they displayed against Madrid, the winner of the final can only be Bayern.
In all likelihood, even a full-strength Chelsea side would probably be the most negotiable opposition Bayern will face in a final for many years. Barcelona have dominated Europe in recent memory, and while Carles Puyol and Xavi are growing older, in most positions they have an abundance of young talent who are yet to peak. Mourinho's Real Madrid face a similar future, with only Iker Casillas and Xabi Alonso the wrong side of 30. Bayern could decisively claim to have been the better side in their recent tie, but Real will certainly be a challenge for years to come, especially given their financial might. The same goes for Manchester City should the Premier League side manage to balance their books ahead of the implementation of Financial Fair Play.
Among neutrals, Jupp Heynckes' men are considered favourites for Saturday's match. Casillas, who bowed out to the Bavarians at the semi-final stage, sees the Germans as favourites: "Bayern are more compact and stronger as a team. The suspensions will also hurt Chelsea more than Bayern," he told Bild.
After losing the Bundesliga and DFB-Pokal, the cards are in their hands. Now or never.