By JOHN BOSCHINI
There hasn't been any shortage of excitement on the road to Munich, and Saturday marks the final chapter in what has been a UEFA Champions League that will be remembered as one of the more unpredictable tournaments in recent years.
Bayern Munich and Chelsea broke up what was seemed as an inevitable Clasico final and dispelled the myth of a two-team power rising in the Champions League. Through gritty defending, opportunistic scoring and fair bit of luck, Chelsea dispatched Barcelona in an tense semifinal second leg at the Camp Nou. Bayern Munich came from behind against Real Madrid and advanced via penalty shootout and will be the first club to host the final of the European club championship since Roma in 1984 and the only one to do so in the Champions League era.
The semifinals had their cost, however, as a litany of players will be missing on both sides due to suspension and injury. Chelsea are missing four players, including three starters, due to suspension while Munich have lost three.
Neither team is coming into the final enjoying a particularly illustrious run of form domestically, either, with a clear focus on Saturday's final. Chelsea saw their fourth-place hopes emphatically crushed last week with a 4-1 demolition at the hands of Liverpool, while Munich were trounced 5-2 by Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup final.
Here is a look ahead to Saturday's showdown in Munich:
TV: FOX, 2:45 p.m.
The Lowdown: Out of the seven players suspended, only Chelsea's Ramires is an attack-minded player so both teams will have to make due with patchwork defenses. The losses are more evident in Chelsea's back line as Branislav Ivanonivic and captain John Terry are both ineligible. David Luiz and Gary Cahill have been struggling with hamstring injuries, but both should be fit enough to start. However, the lack of match fitness and any lingering injury makes the pairing unreliable against a potent attack. Raul Meireles is also suspended for Chelsea, while Florent Malouda is questionable with a nagging injury.
There are cracks in Munich's back line as well. David Alaba has been massive for Bayern Munich despite being only 19, but he is suspended for the final. Likely replacement Diego Contento, who has been less than impressive in his appearances, takes over and could be the weak link in Munich's defensive chain. Anatoliy Tymoshchuk will likely slide back from defensive midfield to cover for suspended centerback Holger Badstuber and Toni Kroos could take over in the defensive midfield. Philipp Lahm continues to anchor the right back position.
Bayern Munich's attack has been one of the best in Europe this season and must be eyeing Chelsea's weakened defense like a bird of prey. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben have been deadly with their pace along the flanks. Mario Gomez has been the beneficiary of the duos enterprising runs, scoring 40 goals in all competitions. With Robben and Ribery streaking high up the wings and Munich going for the early kill, the hosts may be susceptible to a counterattack, especially if Chelsea sit back like they did at the Camp Nou.
The final will also feature two of the best goalkeepers in the world in Bayern's Manuel Neuer and Chelsea's Petr Cech. Cech has been immense for Chelsea in both the Champions League and in the FA Cup, dismissing any claims his form might be dipping. If Chelsea are to pull off the upset Cech will certainly play a large part. Neuer is the main reason Bayern are in this position with a magnificent performance in the penalty shootout against Madrid.
It is difficult to underestimate Munich's advantage at home. Chelsea was afforded a fair amount of tickets for the game so it won't be exactly like a home game for Munich, but there's certainly an advantage to be had. Bayern have outscored their opponents 21-4 at the Allianz Arena in seven European games.
Both teams will look at a victory as validation to their season. For Munich, finishing runners up to Dortmund in both the league and the cup will be erased with a Champions League trophy. For Chelsea, the stakes are more concrete. A win not only gives London its first Champions League or European Cup trophy but also ensures Chelsea's place in next year's competition after finishing a disappointing sixth in England. Without a victory, there will be no Champions League for Chelsea next season, and it might be a long while before the Blues are in this position again.
What do you think of Saturday's game? Can Chelsea pull off the upset or will Bayern ride home-field advantage to the title? How do you see the suspensions affecting both sides? Which team will you be rooting for?
Share your thoughts below.