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Iconic Performances: Petr Cech’s heroic showing in the 2012 UCL final

Being a goalkeeper is a thankless job. On the rare occasions they are afforded a spotlight, those that shine may define their career in doing so.

Contemporary history is marked by a number of unforgettable performances by goalkeepers. Who could forget Joe Hart’s virtuoso display in the Nou Camp in 2015, or Guillermo Ochoa’s acrobatics against Brazil in the 2014 World Cup? What about Petr Čech’s penalty heroics against Bayern in 2012? The Czech international’s dextrous display that night has come to punctuate one of the most compelling Champions League finals in living memory.

At the time, 30-year-old Čech was at the peak of his powers and widely considered among the elite ʼkeepers in the world. He had won every domestic honour available during his 8 year stay in London, but European success had somehow evaded him. Indeed the Champions League had become Chelsea’s, and their sugar-daddy Roman Abramovich’s, obsession. It represented the one thing his roubles hadn’t been able to buy.

The hapless Pensioners, who had reached five semi-finals in the previous eight seasons, were left wounded and embittered by their solitary Champions League final experience. Still fresh was the sting of their penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester United four years earlier. Eight players from this Chelsea squad were in Moscow in 2008, including four who started both finals: Čech, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.

The Blues, who endured a torrid 2011/12 Premier League season, parted ways with José Mourinho’s protégé André Villas-Boas in March. His replacement, club legend Roberto Di Matteo, excelled at his first task as interim manager. In a thrilling encounter, Chelsea overturned a 3-1 first leg defeat at the hands of Napoli, beating Gli Azzurri 4-1 at Stamford bridge in the reverse fixture.

Di Matteo weaved his magic once again in the semi-final when his side took on Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. With the tie finely balanced at 2-2, and Chelsea ahead on aggregate, Di Matteo’s men endured the Barca onslaught through a mixture of luck, dogged defending and sheer force of will. Their unlikely victory in the Nou Camp that night was akin to a cinematic experience – a real blockbuster. An indelible evening, fondly remembered for the birth of the goalgasm.

Chelsea, who had finished a lowly sixth in the Premier League, had an added incentive to win in Munich – to secure Champions League football for the following season at the expense of fourth placed rivals Spurs. Morale was high under Di Matteo, his were squad buoyed by their FA Cup win a week earlier. However, Chelsea’s resurgence under the Italian, and their arduous journey to the Champions League final, had come at a cost.

The battle-weary Blues were missing skipper John Terry, Branislav Ivanović, Raul Meireles and Ramires through suspension. Di Matteo’s patched together side included hamstrung duo Gary Cahill and David Luiz in the centre of defence, as well as Champions League debutant Ryan Bertrand on the left of midfield.

Similarly, Chelsea’s German opponents were also battle scarred. Still reeling from their defeat in the Champions League final at the hands of Mourinho’s Inter two years earlier, Bayern were desperate for success. If the Bavarian hosts needed any further motivation, there was the prospect of becoming the first team to win the competition in their own stadium.

Bayern’s fans attempted to make the atmosphere in the Allianz Arena feel like a home game – which it effectively was. As the teams emerged at the start of proceedings, the partisan home crowd unveiled a banner reading: ‘Unsere Stadt, Unser Stadion, Unser Pokal’ – our city, our stadium, our cup.

Die Roten, as they’re locally known, had also experienced an underwhelming domestic campaign, finishing second in the league, and runners-up in the DFB-Pokal. Despite their struggles, and the mounting pressure on legendary manager Jupp Heynckes, their penalty shoot-out win over Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final had kept their season alive.

Bayern represented a very different threat to Barca. The German’s played with a more expansive, direct approach, using the ball quicker than the Spaniards. Their squad boasted a wealth of generational talents, including Arjen Robben, Frank Ribéry, Thomas Müller, Phillipp Lahm and Manuel Neuer. Their main threat was Mario Gómez, a real throw-back of a centre forward rarely seen outside the width of the goalposts.

Despite the array of talent at their disposal, Bayern too had several notable omissions from their squad. Combative midfielder Luiz Gustavo, key man David Alaba and reliable centre-half Holger Badstuber missed out through suspension.

Bayern began the final in the ascendancy, retaining possession effortlessly and mounting several early forays into the Chelsea half. The Blues, by contrast, shut-up shop from the outset, with an isolated Drogba cutting a lonely figure up front. Chelsea were set-up to play the Italian way, or rather, the Di Matteo way. The Londoners approached the fixture as they would have done any other European away game.

Robben and Ribery terrorised Chelsea’s full-backs in the first half, but the Londoners defensive unit remained staunch, disciplined and adhered to their shape. Bayern, who were wasteful in the final third, had to be content with speculative efforts from outside the area. In truth, Čech only had to make one save from open play worthy of remembrance, but boy was it ever a peach!

In the 22nd minute Robben, Bayern’s main threat on the night, drifted into the centre of the pitch. Beating two defenders with his distinctive slaloming style, he drove a low shot at Čech’s near post with great ferocity. The Czech stopper, with cat-like reactions, extended a leg, the ball rebounding fortuitously off his shin and up on to the crossbar. Chelsea were living on the edge.

Bayern dominated the half, but, with each successive missed opportunity, more seeds of doubt were sown among their players and the increasingly frustrated home crowd. There was a growing feeling, among neutrals and fans alike, that Bayern’s inaccurate finishing was going to come back to haunt them.

The second half began much like the first, with Bayern the vastly superior side. Eight minutes after the restart came another heart-stopping moment for Chelsea fans – Frank Ribéry’s tap-in correctly disallowed for offside. Surely the English side couldn’t survive another half with their backs to the wall? Something had to give.

Then, in the 83rd minute, the Chelsea battlement was finally breached. The classy Toni Kroos swung in a pin-point cross from the left wing, the ball sailing over a statuesque Cole to the unmarked Müller at the back post. The seasoned campaigner, straining every neck muscle, powered his header down into the turf. The ball bounced high, beyond the seemingly jinxed Čech, into the roof of the net.

Enter hero of the hour number two, official man of the match, Drogba. With just two minutes plus added time left on the clock, Juan Mata pinged in a corner from the right. The Ivorian, who had been feeding on scraps all night, muscled his way in front of his marker and ploughed a Herculean header through Neuer’s flailing grasp.

The home crowd fell silent. The flags and scarfs that had been vigorously oscillating were waving no more.

Extra-time had barely begun when Drogba had one of those moments that reinforces the age-old assertion that strikers shouldn’t defend. Chelsea’s saviour, tackled clumsily, fouling Ribery inside the box. It was a certain penalty, a moment of incomprehensible carelessness.

The man Čech would face from the spot was well-known to him. In the aftermath of the final Čech revealed: “Robben always shoots different ways – there’s no pattern in his penalties – so I didn’t know what to do with him. But when you’re tired, players choose power rather than technique. I thought he’d smash it somewhere near the corner and hope it would go through. If I was left-footed I’d go across goal to the right, which is why I went across to my left.”

Robben did indeed smash the penalty. Čech, who had spent eight hours studying Bayern penalties in the lead up to the final, took an educated guess, and it paid off. Not only did the Czech ʼkeeper stop the Dutchman’s shot, but he was up like a light to snaffle the loose ball that ensued.

As the Bayern fans stood stunned, numbed by the countless imprecisions they had witnessed, the ‘Chelsea’s night’ narrative gathered even more momentum. By the time the whistle for the end of extra time had sounded Bayern had attempted 35 shots on goal, the vast majority of them from outside the box.

Chelsea had defended their 18-yard line well, blocking more shots than in any other game in the Champions League that season. They rode their luck all night, but their application was faultless. Their competitive nature had belied their tag as underdogs and carried them to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out – where Čech felt he held a distinct competitive advantage.

“When it went to the shoot-out, I was confident. I’d had that DVD of the Bayern penalties for four or five days but hadn’t watched it. I’d been kind of lazy, and I’d been convinced the game wouldn’t go to penalties like in 2008 against Manchester United. But I’d ended up finding the time on the flight over. I must have watched it about three times.”

The shoot-out began badly for Chelsea, with Juan Mata missing his spot kick and the Germans converting their opening three. Čech, once again, handed his side a lifeline, diving to his left to claw away Ivica Olić’s firmly struck kick. Ashley Cole’s successful penalty followed, sending the tie into sudden death. This was Čech’s moment to shine.

Bastian Schweinsteiger’s prolonged walk from the centre circle seemed to take an age. When the camera zoomed in on the veteran’s face, it was etched with emotion. Usually the coolest of customers, as the German approached the ball he was noticeably grimacing.

Schweinsteiger began his run-up but, in a moment of uncharacteristic hesitation, stuttered. Striking the ball with his instep the ball flew low to Čech’s left. With the slightest of touches the Chelsea stopper diverted the ball onto the post, and away to safety. The Chelsea players, along with their outnumbered pocket of fans, erupted in jubilation.

The burden, nay honour, of the final kick fell to Drogba. The Ivorian stepped up, and confidently slotted the kick home. Dramatic scenes followed that were so cathartic. Blues fans were hysterical, their players were in utter disbelief. Čech, who has since revealed he was completely clueless what to do in the aftermath of the final penalty, embraced Drogba in the way only brothers in arms do.

In the aftermath of the final some rival fans labelled Chelsea as “boring, boring”, but the Stamford Bridge faithful couldn’t have given a toss. For the neutral, it was satisfying to see stalwarts like Lampard, Čech and Drogba get their dues.

For the Bayern supporters the contrast couldn’t have been more polarising. Indeed the whole German nation mourned another crushing final loss. National newspaper Bild lead their post-match edition with the words: “We cry with you too.”

Despite being overwhelming underdogs, Chelsea seemed destined to win that balmy evening in Munich. Their victory was written in the stars spread across the Bavarian night sky. It was rather refreshing that the ultimate prize in club football came to them by way of luck, passion and determination – things Abramovich’s billions can never buy. Their triumph was a veritable footballing miracle.

This epic generated so many lasting memories. Chelsea’s dramatic equaliser, Robben’s missed penalty, Drogba’s tears of joy and, of course, suspended captain John Terry dressed in full kit. For this football fan, Čech’s penalty heroics are the most enduring memory I keep from that enthralling affair. He guessed the correct direction for each penalty he faced that night, saving three out of six.

According to German legend Oliver Kahn goalkeepers play in a “psychological position” – a thinking man, or woman’s, game. Indeed Chelsea supporters will be forever indebted to the intelligent man who, when it mattered most, produced a career defining display of goalkeeping mastery.

Read – Iconic Performances: Rivaldo and the greatest hat-trick ever scored

Read Also – Iconic Performances: Lewandowski’s four-goal destruction of Real Madrid

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