Reaching the Champions League final, though tinged with the disappointment of losing, may not seem like such a bad season. But for FC Bayern Munich it was an unmitigated disaster. For years FC Bayern had been waiting for the 'Finale Dahoam' (home final) and, as Bayern progressed serenely through the early rounds, it acquired a sense of destiny - a successful quest for the Holy Grail was well under way.
Alas, the Grail turned into a poisoned chalice. In the end Bayern were left not only without a domestic trophy, but also without a Champions League crown, a trophy they had craved most of all.
But first let's cast a look back to the events preceding the tragic denouement in Munich's Allianz Arena on 19 May.
It all commenced in confident fashion, despite Bayern having to endure the ignominy of the third qualifying round, having finished only third in the previous Bundesliga season. The Bavarians won both games against Swiss side FC Zürich, 2-0 and 1-0 respectively.
Onto the draw for the group stages and Bayern were handed arguably the toughest of challenges, positioned in Group A alongside Napoli of Italy, Manchester City of England and Villarreal of Spain in the so-called 'Group of Death'.
In order to understand the various challenges presented by the teams, it's worth considering the different teams in each pot. From Pot 4, the weakest pot, Bayern couldn't be drawn against their compatriots Borussia Dortmund due to competition rules, leaving Napoli as by far the strongest potential opponents. The Neapolitans had a relatively low coefficient due to this being their debut season in the competition. Nevertheless, the attacking potency of Napoli, consisting of Slovakian left-winger Marek Hamzik, Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Argentinian midfielder and jewel-in-the-crown lank-haired Uruguayan forward Edison Cavani. From Pot 3 it would be difficult to argue that there was a more threatening team than Manchester City, bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a ruling member of UAE state Abu Dhabi and half-brother to the country's president. From Pot 2, it admittedly could have been worse than Villarreal, but it's worth noting that the Yellow Submarines were Champions League finalists in 2006, although their pedigree has since faded somewhat.
The opening round of fixtures saw Manchester City and Napoli play out an entertaining 1-1 draw in Northern England, whilst Bayern travelled to Spain to take on arguably their weakest opponent. A relatively untroubled 2-0 win against Villarreal left Bayern top of the group after matchday one.
Manchester City's visit to Munich during the Oktoberfest was settled by an in-form Mario Gomez with a brace just before half time to maintain their 100% record. The English side were probably undone by a little bit of inexperience at this level and were unlucky to catch a Bayern side at the top of their game. The match was perhaps overshadowed by Argentinian star Carlos Tevez refusing to come on as a substitute for the visitors.
Matchday three saw an ascendant Bayern arrive at the San Paolo stadium in Naples to an electric atmosphere, the home team roared on ferociously by a vociferous crowd. Unfortunately, this did not have the desired effect as Toni Kroos netted within 2 minutes to give the visitors the lead. Napoli, clearly set back by this, took their time to find their feet in the game but eventually pulled level with an own goal from Holger Badstuber, who, in turning a cross into his own goal, became the first player to beat Bayern's new goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in over 1000 minutes of play. The game ended 1-1, leaving Bayern on seven points after three games, three ahead of both Manchester City and Napoli. In the home game against Napoli, Bayern produced a stunning first-half performance, Mario Gomez continuing his fine form and helping himself to a first-half hat-trick. Nevertheless, the Italians pulled a goal back before the break to leave the score 3-1 at the interval. In the second-half, with both sides reduced to ten men after Holger Badstuber and Juan Zúñiga were sent off, Napoli pulled another goal back - but to no avail.
With Manchester City completing back-to-back victories over Villarreal and thus eliminating the Spaniards, the group was down to three, with Bayern sitting comfortably on top of the pile. On matchday five, all eyes were on the other fixture in Naples, which would surely decide second place. Napoli prevailed against Manchester City 2-1 on a night when Bayern won an easy game 3-1 against Villarreal with Mario Gomez netting his sixth goal of the group stage along with a double from Franck Ribery. In the last game, with top spot in the group already sealed, Bayern fielded practically a reserve team, much to the displeasure of Napoli. A Manchester City win coupled with a Napoli failure to win in Spain would have sent the English team through. Against an unrecognizable Bayern side, including seven changes from the previous league game, City fulfilled their task with a comfortable 2-0 win but were eliminated from the competition thanks to Napoli's victory in Spain. Bayern qualified in first place, with Napoli in second. Manchester City had to make do with the dreaded Europa League spot.
In the first knock-out round, Bayern once again faced Swiss opposition, this time FC Basel. The Swiss Champions had eliminated Manchester United from the group stages but were clearly underdogs going into the tie as relative minnows at this level. Nevertheless, the first leg in Switzerland produced a real shock as Basel won 1-0, courtesy of a late goal from Valentin Stocker. It could have been more for the Swiss side had they had more fortune as they twice struck the woodwork. Perhaps that was the result Bayern needed as it removed any complacency that may have crept into the team.
In the second leg, a majestic Bayern, led from the front by the mercurial Mario Gomez, crushed Basel 7-0, the German forward helping himself to four goals in the process. It was another sign of Bayern's clear intent to win the trophy on home turf and made them a feared opponent for the quarter-final draw.
The quarter-final draw was again kind to Bayern with a winnable tie against Olympique Marseille, probably the weakest team left in the draw after Cypriot minnows APOEL Nicosia. With the French giants coming into the game on the back of a poor run of league form, Bayern were expected to progress and move a step closer to the 'Finale Dahoam'. The first leg in France was an even contest but Bayern's individual quality and ruthless streak combined in the shape on Arjen Robben and Mario Gomez: Robben assisted Gomez for his eleventh Champions League goal of the season while adding the second himself in a routine 2-0 victory.
Notably, Franck Ribery, returning to his former club, was relatively subdued. However, in the second-leg, the Frenchman was back to his enchanting best, this time on the right, to tee up the first of two goals for Ivica Olic, himself brought in to replace Mario Gomez. It says much for the strength of Bayern's squad that they could rest Gomez but also demonstrates the confidence that was sweeping through the squad at the time as 'final fever' gripped the city. Bayern completed the night with another comfortable 2-0 win.
It could be argued that wins over Basel and Marseille were almost a foregone conclusion but nobody was under any illusions when the semi-finalists rolled into Munich for the first-leg. The colossal Real Madrid, 9 times European champions and with 32 goals in their ten games so far, were the opponents Bayern had to overcome to realize their dream final.
In the other game, reigning Champions Barcelona, who were aiming for their third final in four years, played Chelsea. In Munich, with the domestic title slipping away, the home fans were in fervent mood for the visit of Real Madrid. Whatever the situation in the league and however much it hurt to be playing second fiddle to Dortmund again, the Champions League was the one they wanted. At home, on their own pitch, in their own city.
The game itself carried the usual burden of a semi-final but was occasionally lit up by quality. The opening goal, drilled in by Franck Ribery, came from poor Madrid defending, failing to clear a seemingly innocuous corner from Toni Kroos. One had the impression that, although Madrid coach Jose Mourinho was disappointed to concede the goal, he hadn't brought his team to go out all guns blazing. At the start of the second-half, however, with Madrid attacking with more impetus, a mistake from David Alaba allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to get in a shot at goal. Although this was blocked, Bayern never fully cleared and the ball was put into Manuel Neuer's goal by compatriot and former Schalke 04 team-mate Mesut Özil. This looked more like Mourinho's plan and the away side began to sit back a little deeper, presumably relying on the fast counter-attacking led by Ronaldo and the promise of a home second-leg. However, in the dying minutes of the game, man-of-the-moment Mario Gomez tapped in a low cross to send the Bayern fans into ecstasy. Despite the late goal, Mourinho was not too disappointed; thinking his team still had the firepower to blow Bayern out of the water in the Spanish capital.
And so it proved at the start of the return leg. The atmosphere inside the Santiago Bernabeu is totally different to any other. Instead of fans cheering their team on and inspiring the players, the Madridistas wait patiently for the game - they expect their team to deliver. The electricity and the tension are there to be felt for all. On this occasion it seemed to be an inspiration for the home side, in particular Portuguese star Ronaldo, who within 20 minutes of the start had fired his team into a two-goal lead. A perfect execution of Mourinho's game plan and fully vindicating his comments after the first game that all is not lost. However, Bayern were not about to give up on their aspirations of a home final. After 27 minutes, Arjen Robben, who had earlier been guilty of skying an absolute sitter, had the chance to pull a goal back from the penalty spot and level the tie on aggregate. Having missed that penalty against Dortmund only two weeks prior, costing Bayern any realistic chance of overhauling their main domestic rivals, one has to respect Robben for taking on the mantle of penalty taker. This time he was up to the task and although Spain's number one Iker Casillas went the right way and got fingertips on the ball, the penalty went in. A cagey game ensued, with neither side willing to give up any ground. Indeed, Bayern were the more adventurous of the two sides as the game wore on, Mourinho obviously fearing the repercussions a second away goal would bring. There was no way through for either side and the game went to penalties. David Alaba, who in handling the ball after six minutes not only gave away a penalty but also earned himself a booking, meaning he was out of any potential final, was first up and scored. Ronaldo, who had scored from the spot during the game, was first up for Madrid but this time Neuer guessed correctly, springing to his right to save the ball and end Ronaldo's run of 25 successive successful penalties. Neuer also saved from Kaka, and Sergio Ramos blasted over leaving Bastian Schweinsteiger to slam home the decisive kick and send the travelling Bayern fans into delirium.
The final, against Chelsea, was supposed to be the crowning glory. The Spanish dominance had been destroyed in the semi-finals, with both Real Madrid and Barcelona bowing out. Chelsea had four players suspended, including captain John Terry. It was a home game, and of course Bayern were not short of confidence. It is fair to say that Bayern had the better of the game with 26 shots to Chelsea's 7. However, it is worth noting the profligacy of Bayern: 18 of those shots were off target and they had 20 corners to Chelsea's meagre one. Mario Gomez, with twelve goals to his name in the competition, just couldn't find that inauspicious 13th and it seemed his luck had dried up. Chelsea defended as resolutely as anyone who had seen their semi-final against Barcelona would have expected. It was Mourinho who introduced the phrase 'park the bus' into English football vernacular during his spell at Stamford Bridge and his former club certainly adhered to that mantra. Bayern were becoming frustrated until at last, after 83 minutes, they got the breakthrough. The relief in the Allianz Arena was apparent. Thomas Muller's header, in off the crossbar having bounced up off the ground, brought destiny a step closer. 'Unsere Stadt, Unser Stadion, Unser Pokal' - our city, our stadium, our cup - said one banner as the players made their way on to the pitch. The sense of expectation and inevitability was palpable. Unfortunately, for the Bayern players it must have been asphyxiating. In the last minute of the game and from Chelsea's solitary corner, Didier Drogba rose high above Badstuber and planted a firm header towards the top of the near post. Neuer got a faint touch to it but was powerless to stop it going into the top corner. 1-1 and to extra-time and Robben missed another tame penalty and with it the opportunity to ease frayed nerves. Both sides last Champions League final had ended in penalties, Bayern prevailing against Valencia in 2001 and Chelsea losing to Manchester United in 2008. Here, however, the tables wereturned and it was the English side who crashed the party and destroyed Munich's dream. Schweinsteiger, the hero from the semi-final shootout, turned villain as he missed his penalty, allowing man-of-the-match Drogba to convert and give Chelsea their first ever Champions League title.
After the disappointment of finishing behind Dortmund again in the Bundesliga and being trounced by the same side in the German Cup Final, this was the true nadir of Bayern's season. Two years ago they had experienced a Champions League final defeat to Mourinho's Internazionale but that was different. That was in Madrid against a better side that deserved to win. This time everything was in Bayern's favour except the thing which mattered most. Even if Bayern were to win the trophy this year in London, it could never eradicate the harrowing memories of this loss in their own city and in their own backyard.
'Unsere Stadt, Unser Stadion, Unser Pokal'. So near and yet so far.