Chelsea and Bayern Munich squaring off in the Champions League finale? Who could have envisioned that?
Both teams pulled off improbable wins in the semifinals of the competition this week as Bayern kept its cool in penalties at the Bernabeu to brush aside Real Madrid, while Chelsea defied the odds to earn a 3-2 aggregate win over Barcelona despite playing with 10 men for much of the second leg at Camp Nou.
It seemed as if the whole world was expecting another installment of "El Clasico" for all of the Champions League marbles, but Bayern's and Chelsea's triumphs have proven to be a microcosm of the entire competition.
Make no mistake, every Champions League campaign has plenty of incorrect predictions and unforeseen upsets. But with how the preceding rounds of the competition transpired, no one should be overly shocked with the shocking results from Tuesday and Wednesday.
When Manchester United, a club that has reached the final three out of the past four seasons, was drawn into a group with Benfica, Basel and Otelul, no one imagined that it would fail to qualify for the knockout round. But that is precisely what happened as the Red Devils lacked the killer instinct necessary to get past one of the less competitive groups, finishing third behind Benfica and Basel.
Then there was Manchester City. The Citizens were drawn into the "Group of Death" along with Bayern, Napoli and Villarreal, but with the high expectations brought on by the millions upon millions of dollars spent by the Abu Dhabi United Group in the summer transfer market, they were widely picked to win the group. City narrowly missed out on progressing, though, finishing third before being quickly dumped from the Europa League.
The failings of Borussia Dortmund and Lille also came as a surprise. Both sides won their respective league titles last season and were pegged to make runs in the knockout round of the Champions League, but neither club even qualified for the latter stages as they both finished bottom of their groups.
Perhaps the biggest shock of this competition was APOEL becoming the first club from Cyprus to reach the knockout round. APOEL was placed into undeniably the least formidable group of the competition, drawn with Zenit St. Petersburg, FC Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. Nobody gave APOEL a chance to advance, but the minnows proved the critics wrong by winning the group. The club went a step further, dispatching of Lyon in the Round of 16 on penalty kicks before losing out to Real Madrid in the quarterfinals.
The spirit of this season's tournament resides in its surprises and it's perfectly embodied by the two finalists. Chelsea and Bayern Munich have defied the odds at every turn to reach the final.
People seem to have forgotten that Chelsea was one result away from featuring in the Europa League - the Blues went from third place to group winners with the final match of the stage, a 3-0 defeat of Valencia at Stamford Bridge in December.
The odds seemed stacked against them in the Round of 16 when they fell to Napoli, 3-1, at the Stadio San Paolo, but they clawed their way into the quarterfinals with a dramatic, 4-1 home win after extra time in the second leg.
Chelsea also overcame a coaching change midseason to add further shock value to its advances. The club was viewed as one in severe turmoil when Andre Villas- Boas was sacked, but things are looking pretty bright under the reign of caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo, who has guided the Blues to the Champions League final and FA Cup final.
Bayern Munich was also one result away from being ousted from the competition. The Bavarians have put forth a strong showing throughout the Champions League this season, but their one blip came in the Round of 16 when it lost the opening leg, 1-0, at Basel. Bayern went on to trounce the Swiss side, 7-1, in the second leg to quickly quell any questions of an early exit.
So the stage is set for the finale: Bayern to host Chelsea at the Allianz Arena on May 19.
Both clubs will be without key players through suspensions, but Chelsea appears to have more crucial absences with regular first-team contributors missing the final.
Bayern will have to go without David Alaba, Holger Badstuber and Luiz Gustavo, but it will still be able to lean on lynchpins Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Thomas Muller and Mario Gomez. Chelsea's John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles are all set to miss the final after playing key roles in the monumental aggregate win against Barcelona.
With the final taking place in Bayern's home stadium and Chelsea's squad looking very thin, the Blues have the look of a massive underdog.
It would take a brave man to bet against the Bavarians in a cup final at home, but don't write off the Blues just yet. After all, stranger things have happened this season.