The world's most important annual club soccer game is set to kick off in Munich on Saturday. Here are five thoughts on the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea (FOX, 2:45 pm ET).
1. How will suspensions affect the game? A grand total of seven players are suspended and won't play, four for Chelsea (John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, Branislav Ivanovic) and three for Bayern (Holger Badstuber, Luiz Gustavo, David Alaba). Those are significant losses for both teams, but they're also almost all defensive-minded players. The result, I suspect, will be an open game, not least because 1) Bayern and Chelsea have nearly their full complement of attackers, 2) defenses won't be at full strength (Gary Cahill and David Luiz in Chelsea's central defense? Jerome Boateng and Anatoliy Tymoshchuk in Bayern's? Yikes), and 3) Bayern is likely to push hard for an early goal in its home stadium, which would bring Chelsea out of its defensive shell. These may not be the best teams in Europe, but they should make for a fun game for neutrals.
2. Who are going to be the most influential players? Bayern striker Mario Gómez has scored 13 Champions League goals in as many games this season, with 11 of them coming at Allianz Arena. The man who resembles George McFly has been absolute money in front of the goal, and I expect that he will be again here. Bayern figures to dominate the left side on the attack, where Franck Ribéry is a handful and should have help from Philipp Lahm (who I expect will move from the right to fill in for Alaba). Lahm is the rare fullback who's just as dangerous on both sides -- he terrorized Fábio Coentrão in the first semifinal against Real Madrid -- and Chelsea will likely have to play the less-than-ideal Bosingwa at right back with Ivanovic suspended. On the Chelsea side, I do think the Blues will get a goal in this game. Bayern is depleted in the central defense, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Didier Drogba bag a goal.
3. Can Michael Essien turn back the clock? The Ghanaian midfielder hasn't been the same since his 2010 injury, but he may be asked to cover a lot of ground in a three-man Chelsea midfield if Roberto Di Matteo opts for him in Meireles's spot next to Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel. Yet Essien's legs aren't nearly what they used to be, and it may be too much for him if Bayern has a central midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller. It's hard to think Essien could manage in this spot, but if he does Chelsea might have a chance. Which brings us to...
4. What circumstances could produce a Chelsea upset? The Blues have already pulled off the biggest surprise of the tournament, taking down Barcelona in the semis after scoring a legendary counter-attack goal by Ramires with 10 men in the Camp Nou. I didn't think Chelsea would be able to park the bus for 180 minutes and beat Barça, but somehow it happened. Doing it again for 90 minutes here would be easier than for two full games, but I'm not sure Chelsea's luck can hold out with those tactics. However, Bayern's supposed advantage, the crowd, could change into a negative influence the longer the home team goes without scoring and the pressure mounts. Bayern will push forward from the start, leaving space open for the Chelsea counter-attack, and Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech is capable of standing on his head. Put all those things together, and Chelsea has a chance.
5. Who do I like to win? Bayern just has too many things in its favor here: the home crowd, an opponent depleted by suspensions and a clear advantage on the attack with Ribéry, Arjen Robben, Gómez and others. Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League and overachieved just to make it this far under interim manager Di Matteo. And while Bayern hasn't performed up to potential in German domestic competition (getting smacked around by Borussia Dortmund) it's still one of Europe's top teams when it's in form. A fifth European Cup title is about to be won in Munich. My prediction: Bayern 3, Chelsea 1.