Champions League Final 2012, Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich: Two Strange Paths, Two Different Approaches

If you were making predictions as to who would make it to Munich as little as six weeks ago, these would likely not have been the sides you saw going through. It seemed as though yet another Classico between Barcelona and Real Madrid was all but preordained, to be played on the grandest possible stage for the first time in history. But it quickly became apparent that this year's Champions League was less historical epic in the making than cinéma vérité; Real Madrid was the first to exit, an historically bad performance in the decisive penalty shootout proving to be their downfall. At this point Chelsea's victory over Barcelona needs little recapping; it was the game that made the world once again appreciate the value of defense, a performance derided as hopelessly cynical by those that idealize tika-taka as the one true religion, celebrated by those that have grown weary of the belief that there is but one way to play the game and met with a semi-bewildered chuckle and shrug by the vast majority that fall somewhere in between.

This is indeed a less glamorous Champions League final than might have once been envisioned, but in many ways it is far more intriguing. There's little doubt that Barcelona and Real Madrid play some of the most beautiful football the world has ever seen and each match between the sides is something akin to a tent revival, but in any given season the odds are quite favorable that the two will face off on five separate occasions. What's more, it's become something of a given that the higher the stakes the less attractive the game; if the trend were to continue down its most recent path, the entire world would be in for a full 120 minutes of Sergios Busquets and Ramos taking turns hacking down skillful players and crying to the heavens for relief from their various maladies. That's not to say that a Barca-Real final would not have been quite the occasion; it's just unlikely that the idealized version some segments of the populace lament not taking place would have ever come to fruition.

Instead, we have a match between the perennial powerhouse of Germany that has failed to win the title two years running and the nouveau-riche posterchild of yesteryear that have finished outside of England's top four for the first time in a decade. On the face of it that sounds like a bit of a letdown, but to dismiss this final out of hand as a disappointment would be akin to wearing a t-shirt that says "I'm No Fun" in big, black letters. There are all kinds of fun and interesting angles to this game, and if nothing else it hammers home the fact that Europe's elite sides are far, far closer in terms of ability than is generally assumed. Few people would take much umbrage with the opinion that Barca and Real are the two best teams on the continent, but Chelsea and Bayern beat them fair and square and the clubs that ended up finishing on top of each side's domestic league bowed out in the Champions League group stage. Despite the inevitability that sometimes surrounds the games, there's more than a whiff of a crapshoot about the proceedings at times, and that's really all we're looking for as sports fans.

So far as the teams themselves are concerned, they couldn't really go about things in more disparate ways. Chelsea is something of a harbinger of what has become of modern football, a team built through the inexhaustible financial might of their oligarchic owner that has still been unable to claim European football's ultimate prize. By contrast, Bayern Munich is a model of fiscal discipline, preferring instead to invest heavily in youth and development. Chelsea's approach is indicative of that of the English Premier League while Bayern's is the model of the Bundesliga, but despite popular opinion neither is inherently superior to the other. In top-level football winning is the only goal, and so long as the letter of the law is adhered to the path to victory is irrelevant. The Blues have gotten to where they are by snapping up the world's brightest talents, from Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba to Juan Matan and David Luiz, while FCB have been a fixture on this stage since the mid-1960s thanks to a prudent and youth-based approach. No matter who triumphs, the trophy will still shine just as bright.

Where Chelsea is concerned, a win would almost certainly deliver the currently vacated manager's job to caretaker Roberto di Matteo and is as well the only path to a return trip to the Champions League. It's been a tumultuous season for the Blues to say the least, with a rebuilding project undertaken by Andre Villas-Boas going quickly off the rails and resulting in the well-ahead-of-schedule sacking of the young Portuguese wunderkind; if Roman Abramovich is at last able to lift the European Cup, it would more than justify his itchy trigger finger. For Bayern, it would replace the foul taste left in many Bavarian mouths by back-to-back titles won by arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund with that of champagne (or, perhaps more likely, a lightly-chilled eisbock.) From a neutral perspective, observers will be in for what is certain to be a fascinating tactical matchup, with two sides that thrive on solid wing play and impenetrable central midfields attempting to unlock one another in a game that is unlikely to devolve into an exhibition of anti-football. Will Bayern stake a claim for the Bundesliga as the standard against which all others should be judged? Will Chelsea's long and to this point fruitless quest for the greatest honor in club football finally come to an end? If you're not intrigued by this match, you've likely passed the cynical point of no return.

The match will kick off on Saturday at 11:45 a.m. PT and will be televised coast to coast on FOX. Make sure you check back here with our live coverage at SB Nation Seattle's UEFA Champions League StoryStream.

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