- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 25, 2012

LONDON (AP) - Chelsea has been defying expectations all season _ from the surprisingly poor domestic campaign to the astonishing humbling of Barcelona.

“Miracle Men,” the Daily Telegraph called them on the front page of its sports section after the 2-2 draw advanced them to the final.

The obituaries written for an aging team have been ripped up and replaced with tributes to a fearless squad that defied the odds to reach the Champions League final for the second time in four years.

Winning the European Cup for the first time had seemed an unlikely proposition when Andre Villa-Boas was booted out in March with the domestic campaign in turmoil and Chelsea seemingly headed out of the Champions League.

While the Blues struggled in the Premier League, they advanced 3-2 on aggregate to the final.

Chelsea had to play with 10 men from the 37th minute when Terry was sent off for putting his knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez, and the captain will miss the final.

“For many teams it would be a killer,” Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech said. “But we showed great strength of mind and character not to lie down.”

Such fighting spirit has not always been evident this season.

When Villas-Boas was fired, the Portuguese was widely reported to be at odds with his squad, which was facing Champions League elimination after losing 3-1 to Napoli in the last-16 first leg.

Turning around that fixture provided Roberto Di Matteo with the ideal launch pad for his stint in the dugout until the end of the season.

While the Premier League form has still not recovered, Chelsea is through to an FA Cup final against Liverpool and on course for the cup double.

“To be in the Champions League final, obviously, is a dream come true for all the Chelsea players,” striker Fernando Torres said. “It’s the second Champions League final for Chelsea. Everyone knows what happened in the past with the penalty shoot-out.

“So, I think Chelsea deserved a second chance and we have the chance now.”

It was Terry who missed the decisive penalty in the 2008 final against Manchester United. But with Terry suspended for the May 19 final, there will not be a chance for the captain, seen by many fans as the heart of the team, to redeem himself in Munich.

“Terry’s brainlessness ends up damaging no one but himself,” read a headline in The Times of London.

Sergio Busquets had already evened the series on aggregate when Terry was sent off and Andres Iniesta added a second goal for Barcelona to give the hosts the advantage.

“It looked like everything was lost,” Torres said. “After Ramires scored to make it 2-1, at halftime we started believing that we could do it. That goal made us believe. That was the key for us.”

With Lionel Messi blasting a penalty against the crossbar early in the second half, Chelsea started to believe it could pull off an unlikely comeback. Torres’ late goal added the gloss on an achievement Chelsea’s players expect to live long in the memory.

“It’s the greatest Chelsea match I’ve been involved in and probably ever,” midfielder Frank Lampard said. “I know it’s not the final, I know there are no medals on the table yet. As a one-off it’s absolutely huge.”

The victory also helped to pierce the mystique attached to all-conquering Barcelona, which overwhelmingly dominated the two legs but failed to complete its slick passing carousels with enough goals.

“Football’s not just about beautiful stuff,” Lampard said. “It’s about doing the other side and we’ve done that.”

And they must do it again in the final without, not only Terry, but also midfielders Raul Meireles and Ramires and defender Branislav Ivanovic, who are also suspended because of bookings.

“What can you do? We still have enough quality in the team and experience,” Cech said. “So hopefully we will be able to compensate for that.”

In addition, the financial benefit of reaching the final could help to ensure Chelsea is not in breach of UEFA’s new “financial fair play” rules after making losses of $109 million in the year to June 30.

Beating Real Madrid or Bayern Munich could also be the only route back into the lucrative Champions League next season. Chelsea is sixth in the Premier League and must overtake Tottenham or Newcastle to clinch the fourth qualification spot.

“To find ourselves in the final has given the club a fabulous lift,” chief executive Ron Gourlay said. “Financially, as well, it is a big boost for the club. It helps us continue our investment in the team as we go forward but we still have the challenge of making sure we are in this competition next year, and that is very important.”

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