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Chelsea playing for high stakes in Champions League

Published:Saturday | May 19, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Chelsea are playing for a place in European football history as well as next season's competition when they meet Bayern Munich in the Champions League final today.

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

The price of defeat is steep. Chelsea can ill afford to lose Champions League income of more than $63 million this season as European football'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 today they become Europe's champion club for the first time. But Chelsea are 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 are under no such pressure, having assured their 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 their own Champions League exile four seasons ago, when they reached the semi-finals of the second-tier UEFA Cup and took a nearly $32 million hit in their 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.

champions without trophy

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

Still, his team has failed to win football's greatest prize, losing in the semi-finals four times and the 2008 final in a heartbreaking penalty-kick shoot-out against Manchester United in Moscow.

Abramovich fired interim coach Avram Grant after that loss, and victory today 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 they defeated Benfica and Barcelona to arrive in Munich. The Italian coach landed with his team yesterday 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 today.

Bayern coach Jupp Heynckes was fired by Real Madrid in 1998 days after leading the Spanish giant to their 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.