Football is a funny old game in which the story of the underdog has an enduring allure. As soon as teams in knock out rounds of the Champions League were confirmed, club managers and fans started falling over themselves with reckless abandon in their wish to face Chelsea.
They failed to notice the moment being gathered by the Stamford Bridge club. Unfazed by the West Londoners 3-0 aggregate whitewash of then Spanish league leaders Atletico Madrid, FC Porto manager Sergio Conceicao publicly stated his preference to meet Thomas Tuchel’s side in the last eight. Porto were to fall 0-2 in the first leg despite roughneck tactics employed by the 1987 and 2004 European champions.
Belief in Chelsea remained lukewarm ahead of the semis, as bookmakers installed them as fourth favourites to win Big Ears behind Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid.
The word pedigree was bandied around with alarming frequency as the principal reason Los Blancos would reign over the Blues. A fleeting scan through the Londoners’ squad revealed Mateo Kovacic as the only former European champion whereas Zinedine Zidane’s 13-time winners boasted a full dozen. But as soon as the semifinal first leg commenced at the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano, I knew something was cooking for the 2012 winners.
For the first time in the Tuchel era, Chelsea were not playing on the counter but with the gusto of a team that felt it has the right to win. During the opening half hour, Ngolo Kante thoroughly dominated the fabled Real Madrid midfield trio of Casermiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos; giving the team a platform to storm the final. Hadn’t it been for profligate finishing, Chelsea should have been 4-1 up by the time Karim Benzema pegged them back for a 1-1 draw. Not a single Stamford Bridge faithful had any doubt Real would fall in London. And so was the case when Mason Mount converted following brilliant creative play by the ever improving Christian Pulisic.
The final cost punters a fortune, not least because Tuchel’s side appeared to have lost its way in the weeks leading up to the final. Bundled team selection contributed to losses to Arsenal and Aston Villa in the league causing minor ripples within the squad.
Fans here in Uganda begun openly questioning the former Mainz, Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain boss when Leicester City pipped his side to the FA Cup. Questions were asked: why wasn’t three-time FA Cup winner Oliver Giroud given ample playing time? Why was second choice Kepa Arrizabalaga in goal when a trophy was at stake?
Tuchel knew better. His decision to start much maligned record signing Kai Havertz a turned out to be a masterstroke. Finals are habitually won by the team that shows up, and it is to Tuchel’s eternal credit that his entire starting line up was pumped up for the final. His work on the psychology of players was superb. Only veteran sweeper Thiago Silva wasn’t at the races, noticeably struggling to cope with Kyle Walker’s pace early on, and it was a huge relief when he was replaced by Andreas Christensen. I watched the final with a small crowd of about eight fans, most of whom had wagered on a draw.
To everyone’s utter surprise, referee Lahoz’s final whistle saw me burst into song. My rendition of Championee, Championee, Ole, Ole, Ole; is one for the ages.