Chelsea plays for high stakes in Champions League

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By GRAHAM DUNBAR, Associated Press

MUNICH (AP) — Chelsea is playing for a place in European soccer history as well as next season's competition when it meets Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.

After nine straight seasons among Europe's elite, Chelsea's sixth-place finish in the Premier League means its only entry to next season's Champions League is as title holder.

The price of defeat is steep. Chelsea can ill afford to lose Champions League income of more than $63 million this season as European soccer's financial fair-play rules begin to bite and limit bailouts from wealthy owners.

Life will be easier for all at Chelsea next season if on Saturday it becomes Europe's champion club for the first time. But Chelsea is facing a four-time winner playing at home in Allianz Arena.

"It's a huge game, everyone knows how big it is," Chelsea defender Gary Cahill said. "But for us, if we get caught up in that, and start thinking from stuff apart from the game it will be a distraction."

Bayern is under no such pressure, having assured its place in next season's lucrative 32-team group phase after finishing runner-up to Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

Germany's traditional powerhouse endured its own Champions League exile four seasons ago, when it reached the semifinals of the second-tier UEFA Cup and took a nearly $32 million hit in its annual accounts.

Chelsea last played in the UEFA Cup in 2002-03 with club greats like Gianfranco Zola and Marcel Desailly, yet was ousted in the first round by Viking of Norway.

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought the west London club months later and has known only Champions League soccer since.

Still, his team has failed to win soccer's greatest prize, losing in the semifinals four times and the 2008 final in a heartbreaking penalty-kick shootout against Manchester United in Moscow.

Abramovich fired interim coach Avram Grant after that loss, and victory Saturday might also not earn a permanent contract for Roberto di Matteo despite his inspiring work.

Di Matteo took over when Andre Villas-Boas was fired following a 3-1 defeat to Napoli in a last-16, first-leg match, and his team has looked destined for something special as it defeated Benfica and Barcelona to arrive in Munich.

The Italian coach landed with his team Friday amid headlines that Abramovich covets Pep Guardiola after his resignation at Barcelona, while Fabio Capello has also reportedly been in talks with Chelsea officials.

"I'm very relaxed about it," Di Matteo said earlier. "I have a big drive and a big motivation to do something extraordinary for this club. After that, what happens happens for a reason."

Di Matteo has been linked with Lazio, the club he left in 1996 to begin a hugely successful playing career with Chelsea. He could find some sympathy for his situation on the other sideline Saturday.

Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes was fired by Real Madrid in 1998 days after leading the Spanish giant to its first European title in 32 years.

The 67-year-old German is trying to become the fourth coach to lead two different clubs to the title of the European Cup, which was rebranded as the Champions League in 1992. The others are: Ernst Happel of Austria (Feyenoord 1970; Hamburger SV 1983), Germany's Ottmar Hitzfeld (Dortmund 1997; Bayern 2001), and Jose Mourinho of Portugal (FC Porto 2004; Inter Milan 2010.

For his part, Heynckes has a message for Chelsea's owner: Keep Di Matteo no matter how Saturday's game ends. Heynckes says Di Matteo has made a "good impression" on him.

"I'd tell Abramovich to stick with him," he said.

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