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Column: Champions League gets thinking fan’s final

- Associated Press - Friday, May 18, 2012

MUNICH (AP) - The dream Champions League final, in pure soccer terms, would have been Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. But the world's two best players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both fluffed penalty kicks in the semifinals, leaving us with the thinking fan's final, instead.

Which isn't to say that Bayern Munich against Chelsea is a dull second-best. European club soccer's most coveted trophy and, in some ways, its soul _ not to mention UEFA boss Michel Platini's ambitions for the future _ will all be in play when the sober Bavarian and glitzy west London teams meet at the Allianz Arena in Munich.

A final with the Spanish giants might have produced a better show and a bigger global television audience. But Bayern vs. Chelsea could be more significant, philosophically.

Bayern touts itself as a model for the type of club Platini wants to see and is pushing for: Financially sound and adroitly managed, profitable for the past 19 years, living within its means, not beholden to a rich sugar daddy, and certain to field some homegrown stars on Saturday night.

Chelsea, on the other hand, is Roman Abramovich's vanity project. Because he can, the Russian billionaire has poured in the region of 800 million pounds (1 billion euros; $1.2 billion) into the club he saved from possible bankruptcy in July 2003.

He has spent tens of millions of pounds on hiring and then firing managers who failed to meet his expectations, hundreds of millions more on players (often buying at inflated prices), and enabled Chelsea to post eye-watering financial losses. And, unlike Bayern, all of Chelsea's starters on Saturday will likely be players bought in from other clubs.

So, in simplest terms, the final will be a contest of two business models _ one, Bayern's, which purists like Platini believe is both financially and morally right for soccer, against another which many feel is dangerous for the long-term health of the sport.

One shouldn't be too simplistic. Abramovich isn't Darth Vader and Bayern isn't a ragtag bunch of rebels succeeding on determination alone.

Both clubs have spent fortunes to reach this pinnacle match. Bayern's attacking trio of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Gomez and its goalkeeper Manuel Neuer didn't come cheap.

But proponents of the Bayern model argue, somewhat smugly, that its wealth is generated sustainably, from huge commercial revenues, its regularly packed stadium, and on-field success, and that Chelsea wouldn't be competing at the top in Europe if not for Abramovich's financial doping.

"Bayern never spends more money than it has," Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes said Friday. "We don't make debts."

So a Bayern victory will feel like a cheer, too, for Platini's Financial Fair Play rules which aim to steer European clubs away from the Abramovich model and wean them off huge losses to make them more financially stable and sustainable.

A loss could also leave Chelsea in a financial hole, by depriving it of Champions League soccer next season and the wealth brought by participation in that competition.

But, on a human level, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba and their Chelsea teammates fully deserve to be in this final. What warriors. At 34 for Drogba and 33 for Lampard, they're proving wrong those who said they were too old.

Chelsea's semifinal defeat of Barcelona wasn't pretty. By defending doggedly in numbers and scoring three goals against the run of play, Chelsea offended fans of Barcelona's artful style and of its master, Messi. But Barcelona isn't somehow entitled to places in finals simply because it plays the most visually pleasing soccer. Chelsea had the better luck but also put away its chances. Barcelona couldn't make its superiority count.

Which gives thinking fans something else to ponder on Saturday night: Is it more important to play beautifully or to win? Ideally, of course, neutrals would like to see both. But not all teams can do that. History remembers teams that are engraved on trophies, not always who they beat to get there, how they did it, or that it cost their owner $1 billion to buy the win.

Abramovich has chopped and changed his way through seven managers in nine years. It would be deliciously ironic if the coach who gets him what he wants _ Chelsea's first Champions League trophy _ is Roberto Di Matteo, the former assistant and now "interim" coach in charge only because Abramovich ditched the last guy, Andre Villas-Boas, in March.

The big regret Saturday is that six players who should play will be absent.

Bayern's David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo, and Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires are suspended for one of the biggest matches of their careers.

So, too, is John Terry, Chelsea's captain. Terry kneed Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez in the back in the semifinal and got sent off.

The other six, however, are banned only because they picked up their third yellow cards of the competition in the semifinals.

That they and Terry, whose offense was far graver, should essentially receive the same punishment _ being kept from the final _ seems cruel and disproportionate.

So the final will not be a Spanish 'clasico' but it will still have plenty for fans to get their heads around.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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