Blues earning admiration in adversity
The title was bought, some say. Understandably, Manchester City disagree and, if they want to construct a case for the defence, they can cite Chelsea. In the ninth year of Roman Abramovich's ownership, they are the reminder money has not bought everything: not the Champions League crown the Russian desires or the popularity that has eluded them. The former may be acquired on Saturday night in Munich and the latter, more surprisingly, could be experienced, too.
While silverware has been won in the eight most successful seasons of their history, the battle for hearts and minds had been a resounding defeat. For many onlookers, Chelsea have had too much money, too many egos and too misplaced a sense of entitlement. Their cast list has featured plenty of people - John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Jose Mourinho, Avram Grant - that, fairly or not, many have loved to hate. While the three-letter abbreviation ABU (Anyone But United) was coined to describe those who wished the worst on Manchester United, whomever the opposition and whatever the circumstances, there is a newer group: the ABCs, hoping Chelsea lose.
And yet, while the former chief executive Peter Kenyon's infamous and unwise boast that the world would be painted blue is no nearer fruition, there may have been a sea change in opinion. Chelsea's two-legged triumph over a Barcelona team touted as the greatest ever showed incredible character and unbreakable resolve. It was evidence of a teamwork and a determination that has little to do with money and everything to do with inspired individuals and a galvanised group touching heights they have rarely done since and may never do again.
There is something endearing about the revival of John Obi Mikel and Salomon Kalou, limited players helping eliminate illustrious opponents. There was a sense of sorrow for Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanovic, banned for the Bayern Munich match after excelling against Barcelona, and particularly for the remarkable Ramires, who overcame his personal disappointment about incurring a suspension to score the tie's most telling goal in sublime fashion. There was even a sympathy vote for Fernando Torres, the butt of so many jokes before streaking clear to finish off the defending champions.
Along the way, three of Chelsea's most maligned won over some doubters. Cole showed why he can rank among the world's best full-backs, Lampard played deeper than he can ever have done, shielding the defence doggedly and providing intelligent passes, and Drogba scored a first-leg winner in a display of absurd histrionics and considerable power before sacrificing himself for the greater good in Catalonia, seeming an auxiliary left-back, right-back and winger in the second half. For each, it may be a final shot at glory, and it is hard to escape the feeling they merit it.
For the manager, it may be a first and last chance. The understated, impressive Roberto Di Matteo is a reason Chelsea is not the toxic brand it once was. After the Machiavellian machinations of Mourinho and the humourless arrogance of Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea have a likeable leader off the field and, in Lampard, a less divisive captain on it. For many, it will be easier to support them without the egregious Terry, even if victory is likely to prompt him to lift the trophy.
Of course, plenty have not suddenly shifted allegiances to root for Chelsea. The battle for Champions League places meant Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle fans had understandable reasons for hoping Barcelona beat Chelsea and Spurs supporters will adopt Bayern Munich as their second team on Saturday. The Blues' rivals, whether local - Fulham, QPR, West Ham - or more distant, such as Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester United, may develop a sudden enthusiasm for all things Bavarian.
In addition, Bayern have a self-sustaining economic model that is rightly respected. They have an attacking style of play and world-class talents such as Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben. But they are reasons that Chelsea, as against Barcelona, go to Bayern's home ground in the otherwise unusual position of being the outsiders. The British have a natural affinity for the underdog but it is rare that Chelsea have been the unfancied team.
They cannot plead poverty, but adversity brings admirers. Missing four suspended players - even if Bayern are without three of their own - they will have a patched-up look in the biggest game of their lives. After underachieving in the league and a traumatic year, with two central defenders who have not played for weeks, with a paucity of options, with the futures of manager and star striker utterly uncertain, Chelsea hardly head to the Allianz Arena in ideal condition. And that, in its own way, is a reason winning the Champions League would be a greater and more popular achievement. Because, however much they have spent, it really wouldn't be about the money.