There's a lot riding on today's Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich. It sounds like an understatement, but the fact is the repercussions of the big match in Bavaria will go far beyond the act of crowning a European champion. No matter who prevails on the biggest stage in club soccer there will be a loser going into the summer with hard questions to answer. Very hard questions. In this final, the fear of losing may be the predominant theme --which isn't all that surprising when you consider what's at stake.
Of the two sides Chelsea have the most to lose. A sixth-place finish in the just-completed Premier League season means the Blues have to win the current Champions League to qualify for the next one. They've never missed out on Europe's premier club competition since Roman Abramovich began his spending spree in 2003, but nine years and nearly a billion dollars later that's exactly what will happen if they fail to win today in Munich.
The fallout, needless to say, would be severe. Criticized much of the season for being too old, too slow and too entitled, Chelsea nevertheless overcame the likes of Napoli, Benfica and Barcelona by playing a disciplined, even gritty, brand of soccer. Victory today would affirm the current group of players; it would validate Abramovich's faith in the veteran core of John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
A loss, on the other hand, would see Chelsea complete the worst campaign of the Abramovich era. The squad would be dismantled; manager Roberto Di Matteo would almost certainly be fired. For Chelsea, this Champions League final has existential ramifications.
It's not quite as serious on the other side of the ball at Bayern Munich. This is the German side's second Champions League final appearance in three years, and they recently completed a Bundesliga season in which they came second to Borussia Dortmund.
The thing is, Bayern have been coming second a little too often recently, and second-place is regarded as failure at the biggest club in the country.
Last weekend they faced Dortmund, fresh off a second successive league championship, in the DfB cup final. They were stuffed 5-2 -- a result that represented their fifth straight defeat at the hands of the Black-Yellows. Bayern are getting uncomfortably accustomed to playing the bridesmaid in German soccer, and it's not a role they want to reprise in the Champions League.
A loss to Chelsea would mean Bayern had finished second in all three competitions they entered this term. And while they would have come close to the silverware on all three fronts while generally playing some of the most attractive soccer in Europe, they would have fallen short at the final hurdle again and again and again.
Silver medals might be acceptable at some clubs, but at Bayern they're symbol of shame, a weight of dishonour around the neck.
Glory beckons for one of these sides in today's Champions League final. Despair lies in wait for the other.
NOTES: Chelsea defenders Gary Cahill and David Luiz trained throughout the week and are expected to start today. Should they be unable to go Michael Essien will likely drop to the backline alongside Sam Hutchinson... Chelsea will be without John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles -- each of whom is suspended... Bayern Munich winger Arjen Robben was laid low with a virus during the week but is expected to start against Chelsea... Bayern are without defender Holger Badstuber, left-back David Alaba and midfielder Luiz Gustavo -- each of whom is suspended... Bayern are the first side to participate in a European Cup final in their own stadium since Roma in 1984. Roma lost to Liverpool on penalties...Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca will oversee today's match. It will be his sixth Champions League assignment of the campaign.