Suspensions leave Bayern, Chelsea with lineup quandaries for final
It's rare to approach a game of the magnitude of Saturday's Champions League final with so many massive questions about the lineups of both sides.
Four Chelsea players -- defenders John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic, and midfielders Ramires and Raul Meireles -- will be suspended for the final; Bayern Munich will be without three (defensive midfielder Luiz Gustavo, along with defenders Holger Badstuber and David Alaba). And that means any assessment of what might happen is going to be dotted with ifs and maybes.
Bayern's lineup is probably easier to predict than Chelsea's. There's little doubt manager Jupp Heynckes' preferred starting XI is the side he played in both legs of the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid and in the German Cup final loss to Borussia Dortmund last Saturday. That's a 4-2-3-1: Phillip Lahm, Jerome Boateng, Badstuber and Alaba across the back; Luiz Gustavo and Bastian Schweinsteiger holding in midfield; Arjen Robben on the right, Franck Ribery on the left; and Toni Kroos behind frontman Mario Gomez. It's a pleasingly balanced side, with coalitions all over the pitch: Lahm and Robben link well, while the central-midfield triangle -- with Schweinsteiger shuttling and Kroos dropping back as required -- was probably the major reason Bayern dominated Real Madrid in the first leg of its semifinal.
Unless Anatoliy Tymoshchuk gets a surprise call to replace the suspended Gustavo, Schweinsteiger likely will take on the more defensive holding role, with Kroos dropping into the shuttling role. (Expect Tymoshchuk to take Badstuber's spot, barring the return of Daniel van Buyten after a four-month absence.) That leaves Thomas Müller, who's far less intelligent and versatile than Kroos, operating behind Gomez.
All three are fine players, but there isn't quite the same sense of toughness and flexibility as in the first-choice selection, and it's easy to imagine Müller becoming mired in the flood of bodies Chelsea are likely to pack into deep central midfield.
Van Buyten aside, replacing David Alaba is yet another big question. The straight replacement would be Diego Contento, but he has started just five Bundesliga games this season. Heynckes has the option of breaking up the Lahm-Robben axis on the right, effective though that was against Real Madrid, and shifting Lahm to left back with Rafinha, who has started 20 Bundesliga games this season, coming in at right back.
The real interest, though, is in how Chelsea will line up. Without Terry and Ivanovic, caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo must hope David Luiz and Gary Cahill have recovered from hamstring problems. Neither played against Blackburn Rovers in Sunday's Premier League finale, but the suggestion is that they will be fit to fill both center back roles. If not, then Michael Essien would presumably have to drop back from midfield unless Di Matteo turns to the 22-year-old Sam Hutchinson, who has just returned to action after unexpectedly recovering from a knee injury that forced him to retire in 2010.
That means Jose Bosingwa at right back and Ashley Cole at left back. Cole has probably been the world's best left back over the past decade, and while his pace isn't what it was, he has produced some outstanding performances this season, notably in the two legs of the semifinal against Barcelona. His battle with former teammate Robben should be fascinating.
The other flank, though, is more of a concern for Chelsea. Bosingwa is comfortable on the ball, but can look vulnerable when players run at him. If Ribery is in the right mood, he could be devastating against the Portugal international.
That leads to the next major issue for Di Matteo to resolve: Does he play a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1? Against Barcelona -- until Terry's moment of idiocy and subsequent red card -- he preferred a 4-3-3. Mikel John Obi was flanked by Meireles and Frank Lampard, with Juan Mata as the sole creative option on the right and Ramires scuttling up and down the left. Without Ramires and Meireles, the options are more limited.
Di Matteo could go for a three-man blanket in front of the back four again, bringing in Essien for Meireles, but Bayern pose a different threat to that of Barcelona. With Barça, an opponent can effectively cede wide areas and look to block off the center, knowing that Barça pose little aerial threat and so crosses are unlikely to pose much danger. However, Bayern's main threat is the flanks, so Chelsea may opt instead for a 4-2-3-1, which in practice may end up looking more like a 4-4-1-1. That would mean Mata off center forward Didier Drogba, which would restrict Schweinsteiger, with Lampard and Mikel sitting deep in midfield, trying to stifle both Müller and the forward surges of Kroos.
So who plays wide? There might be an argument even for using Essien on the right to double up on Ribery, although if Contento were preferred at left back, that would feel like giving him an easy ride defensively. Playing Daniel Sturridge on the right would at least pose an attacking threat for the fullback, but his lack of defensive discipline would risk leaving Bosingwa as exposed.
Strange as it may sound, the best option may be Salomon Kalou, who has somehow racked up 156 league appearances for Chelsea without every looking entirely convincing. He did, though, play with great intelligence and discipline after coming off the bench in both legs against Barcelona.
Drogba, with his aerial power and renewed sense of focus, is an automatic pick up top -- perhaps with Fernando Torres to come on to use his pace if the game gets stretched late on. That leaves the left side, where logic would seem to suggest a start for Florent Malouda, if he's fit, despite a slump in form stretching back almost two years. He does, though, give Chelsea the muscularity that might be able to check Lahm. Then again, if Lahm is on the left, Di Matteo would probably prefer Sturridge or Kalou on that side to try to challenge Rafinha defensively.
The other quandary for Chelsea is how aggressively to approach the game. Bayern has struggled this season against both Dortmund (three defeats, culminating in a 5-2 walloping in the Cup final last Saturday) and Mainz (a 3-2 away defeat and a 0-0 draw at home), suggesting it
The danger, though, is that Bayern is much stronger in the air than Barça, and so Chelsea cannot invite crosses, which means early engagement and an attempt to stop the supply to the flanks. Bayern defeated Real Madrid in the center; it's there that Chelsea must stifle it.