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May 19, 2012

Home is where the heart aches

The moment had finally arrived. It had not looked like coming but it was here at last. As so often in Bayern's glory era of the 1970s, it was a Muller who supplied the golden moment. This time it was Thomas and not Gerd. Bavaria's hero was given a standing ovation as he left the field. Home field advantage had finally told.

Yet an hour later, it was Chelsea who were European champions and not Bayern Munich. Like Lothar Matthaeus in 1999, Muller had left the field to celebrate his moment of glory with the fans. It was presumptuous, and it was a decision that did not take Didier Drogba into account.

Bayern had again suffered the type of smash and grab they endures in the Camp Nou and when being beaten by FC Porto in the 1987 final. Bitter memories of Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Rabah Madjer can be joined by the Ivorian when Bayern fans awake in the night to consider the hot flush of repeated failure. Bayern have now lost five times in the European Cup/Champions League final, and while the manner of this defeat was not quite the jolt to the heart of those previous horror nights, it will register as a slow lingering death of a dream. Their own home will now be where the heartache is.

Drogba's crashing headed equaliser on 88 minutes had ruined a night's celebrations already. And it was his penalty that sealed Chelsea's destiny, and realised the dreams of himself, his team-mates, their fans, the owner who has plunged the GDP of a small country into the club and also the city of London, which has its first continental champion after 57 years of the European Cup.

Pure willpower and doggedness have been this team's key to a success few could have predicted when Andre Villas-Boas was sacked midway through a last-16 tie with Napoli. Roman Abramovich will have to wait for his team to delight the world with flowing football. Instead, he can rejoice in a project completed. Money can buy you what you want after all, and patience was not a virtue. Should he choose this juncture to make his first public appearance since arriving in football in the summer of 2003, the Russian may offer that firing 'AVB' led directly to European success.

It was not quite Istanbul in 2005, since Chelsea did not have to haul back a three-goal deficit but the new champions' run has been similar to that of Liverpool seven years ago. Written off, unloved, unfancied against supposedly superior opponents in each round, they have battled their way to primacy, embracing drama along the way.

This may not register as a classic final where two worlds collide to produce for the purist but it made up for that in its storyline. From the moments when Bayern began to snatch at chances rather too early, it was clear which side possessed the greater vulnerability of psyche. If Chelsea could hang on for long enough then this could be their night.

Bayern may often have cut Chelsea into ribbons but the heroism of their defence, with Ashley Cole putting in the greatest performance of a career of consistent excellence, kept them in the game. It also helped that Bayern's frontline was faltering. Mario Gomez once again failed to prove that he is a striker of top grade, blowing both of Bayern's best first-half chances.

Time and again, Chelsea's flanks were exposed, only for Bayern to run out of ideas when the chance came to get the ball in the middle. Perhaps they were put off by a home crowd whose own anxiety was apparent. Whenever a chance looked on, it was greeted with a near wail of want and desire for the fairy story to get back on track. It began to look like home disadvantage as hysteria crept ever higher.

And then there was Arjen Robben, When missing an extra-time penalty, given for a foul on Franck Ribery by who else but Drogba, his nerve failed him once more on the grandest of occasions - just as it did when he blew a golden chance to win the 2010 World Cup for his country. Given the footballing cliché that Germans are unimpeachable on penalties, why didn't one of them take it? His effort was poor and all too saveable for Petr Cech: another name set to be writ in Stamford Bridge legend.

The answer arrived during the shoot-out. It was apparent that Bastian Schweinsteiger would miss during his run-up. Whichever thought he had in his mind about taking Bayern's fifth penalty slipped from his head and he shuffled up to the ball and hit it against the post with Cech diving the right way and perhaps getting his fingertips to the ball.

Drogba had his chance for redemption. His sending off had lost Chelsea the chance to see off Manchester United in Moscow in 2008, and he also missed a normal time penalty in this year's African Nations Cup final. This time, he converted with a flourish off a short run, with what may be his last kick in a Chelsea shirt. Though he will be missed, few could hold it against him if he chose to bow out in such a fashion.

He will rightly assume centre stage, though the heroes are legion. Frank Lampard's calm in midfield bought flagging team-mates respite time and again, while the manager must take huge credit too.

Roberto Di Matteo's tactics had frustration in mind for Bayern. The selection of Ryan Bertrand will go down as a masterstroke, the young man as a hero, for a selfless 73 minutes of running the channel that would prevent Philipp Lahm getting forward down Bayern's right flank.

Di Matteo was never an Avram Grant, his Chelsea playing career had seen to that. He now has something to prove he is not a Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti or Guus Hiddink. He has something over them now; he has achieved his boss' heart's desire. Fifteen months ago, he was sacked by West Bromwich Albion. Now, whatever happens with Chelsea, he is able to be considered a candidate for the elite.

The rhythms of Abramovich, where almost every season sees a new man brought in to bring him his prize, have been disrupted by the achievement of his ultimate goal. Chelsea are champions of Europe.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Ashley Cole. Drogba will take the headlines but Cole provided him the foundation with his leadership of an inexperienced defensive unit. He was to be found throwing himself in front of Bayern shots all night, and his shoot-out penalty was slotted with poise. He may shun the limelight these days but he deserves it.

CHELSEA VERDICT: They were not pretty, they may have rode their luck, but their name is on the trophy due to a performance that offered grit and belief throughout all of its departments. Cech excelled, as did a rag-tag defence, a polished but hard-working midfield and then there was Drogba.

BAYERN VERDICT: They may now wish to return to play at the Olympiastadion and abandon the Allianz Arena for this was an evening which will ever be remembered as traumatic. Snatched chances, the wastefulness of both Robben and Ribery and the defending of Drogba's goal will all compete for the most painful moment. They dominated possession but could not control their own minds.

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