Early Doors

Chelsea’s one billion reasons to win

Early Doors

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At 7.45pm this evening, when Chelsea's players emerge from the tunnel to a cacophony of noise at Munich's Allianz Arena, it is not just the weight of history, of fate, that every single one of the starting XI will feel resting oppressively on their shoulders, but also nine years of frustration and nearly £1 billion of investment for a secretive Russian secreted somewhere in the stands of this unique stadium.

So private is Roman Abramovich, at his press conference on Friday evening caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo was unaware of just when he would be visiting his players prior to what could be the defining moment of their careers - and the culmination of a long-held dream for their owner. While he maintains a silent demeanour, though, his ambition in this competition screams out. As Frank Lampard said: "I haven't had a direct message, but the message is always there. He has put a lot into this club and without him we wouldn't be here now."

If Di Matteo - a hugely unlikely protagonist on this, the greatest of stages, who, just 15 months ago, was being shown the door by West Brom - can succeed where seven Chelsea managers before him have failed, then Munich will witness the culmination of a convoluted and extremely costly chain of events that was set in motion in April 2003 when Old Trafford rose to its feet to applaud Ronaldo after the Brazilian striker's hat-trick in an unforgettable night in the Champions League - United won the match 4-3 but went out.

It was then, legend has it, that Abramovich first fell head over heels in love with football, leading to him consummate this new, exciting, intense affair when purchasing Chelsea the following July in a transaction that changed English football forever.

Three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and two League Cups have been his reward for upwards of £800 million ploughed into the club, yet the prize that is said to obsess him above all has remained tantalisingly out of his grasp.

A member of the ultra-rich Russian oligarchy, Abramovich is a man for whom doors open, deferentially. He owns super-yachts, a Boeing 737 and an art collection to rival Tate Modern. Yet there is one piece, one status symbol, that even Abramovich does not possess and has been unable to purchase. Not even after nearly a decade of breaking British transfer records.

What to get the man who has everything? Well, a Champions League trophy would probably do the trick. It is the quest that has repeatedly defeated him ever since his epochal arrival in English football.

Claudio Ranieri tinkered too much and saw a semi-final against Monaco slip from his grasp in 2004, but the Italian was inherited, he was never Abramovich's man. The coach who did win the trophy that year with Porto, Jose Mourinho, was coaxed to Stamford Bridge as Abramovich's first real appointment, but despite later becoming only the third coach in history to win the competition with two different clubs, the second of those triumphs came at Inter. Two semi-final defeats to Liverpool left even the 'Special One' impotent, for once unable to bend history to his will as he has done so often elsewhere.

Against all expectation, Avram Grant — a spectacularly uncharismatic individual — took Chelsea the closest they have come to securing the trophy, with John Terry failing victim to the slip heard around the world as his crucial penalty thumped into the post in Moscow. This was the most painful of all for Abramovich, his chance to acquire football's most valuable trophy ripped from him as his friends, political allies and fellow oligarchs all gazed on from the Luzhniki Stadium's plush executive seats. The party of the century was cancelled.

When another temporary boss, Guus Hiddink, was denied a place in the final only by Tom Henning Ovrebo's succession of shocking decisions and a late, late goal from Andres Iniesta in 2009, it was to Carlo Ancelotti — winner of the competition twice as a player and a manager; a specialist no doubt — that Abramovich turned in the summer. Yet still success proved beyond Chelsea, and, following the short-lived experiment of another European trophy winner in Andre Villas-Boas, yet again it has taken a temporary custodian to take Chelsea to within touching distance of the greatest prize of all. Such are the myriad disappointments looming over this Chelsea team as they ready themselves for their date with destiny.

Speaking in his pre-match press conference, Di Matteo would not confirm whether the Russian, who has stayed religiously mute since his purchase of the club, viewed the competition as an obsession.

"I personally don't know how somebody else feels at the moment," said the Italian, who again maintained a very calm and composed persona while the media pack asked question after question about his undefined future at the club. "We are all excited and I hope he is too. Sometime [a Champions League triumph] will come and we hope it is tomorrow."

Though Abramovich may embody English football's nouveau riche - and Saturday's final will be played in a thrilling modern stadium sheathed in a futuristic, chameleonic film of oversized bubble wrap — it is a desire to join the historic greats of the game that motivates Chelsea's owner, their players and Di Matteo: the Real Madrid team that won five successive titles; Eusebio's Benfica; Cruyff's Ajax; Beckenbauer's Bayern; on and on and on through the decades.

Derided so often for being a club with no history, one founded on the date of Abramovich's purchase — a taunt that ignores the fact Chelsea were markedly successful in cup competitions just prior to the Russian's arrival, not to mention the legacy of players like Peter Osgood going even further back into football's annals — Saturday night marks the chance for the club to join an elite few. They can become football immortals.

At 3-1 down after the first leg against Napoli it seemed as though Chelsea's old guard had let slip their final chance to write their names indelibly into football's history books. But Di Matteo, by cajoling a renewed confidence from a squad worn down by the deleterious reign of Andre Villas-Boas, is suddenly on the brink of achieving what no Chelsea manager has done before; what no manager of a London club has done before. Quite improbably, following a wonderful comeback against the side from Naples and that totemic semi-final defeat of Barcelona, they stand 90 minutes from their first Champions League victory.

Bayern, by contrast, are aiming to win the competition for a fifth time. However, while Chelsea are still haunted by the ghosts of Moscow 2008, Bayern's current crop still have the 2010 defeat to Inter fresh in their minds; none of Jupp Heynckes's squad were present for the last triumph against Valencia in 2001.

This, too, is a maiden voyage for some of the 'home' performers, who have already seen the league slip from their grasp again and were humbled 5-2 in the German Cup final last weekend. Comparisons with the Bayer Neverkusen side of 2001 are hovering ominously on the horizon.

Heynckes is a former winner himself. Indeed, having won the trophy for Real Madrid in 1998 before being promptly sacked, he is something of a role model for Di Matteo, who is unlikely to retain his job even if Chelsea emerge victorious from Saturday evening's clash.

But if he does depart Stamford Bridge having won the Champions League, the Italian will have carved out a place in history all of his own and finally sated Abramovich's lust for a trophy that has so far proved to be the one item money cannot buy.

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