How players prepare for a Champions League final: Playing FIFA, stand-up comedy and a sing-song - How Chelsea got set for Moscow 2008

Joe Cole gives BTSport.com a behind-the-scenes look into Chelsea's preparations for the 2008 Champions League final ahead of his former side's showpiece clash with Manchester City in Porto.

By Robert Cottingham Published: 28 May 2021 - 6.08pm

How do you prepare your team to play in a Champions League final?

It’s a question that will be running through the minds of Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel ahead of Saturday’s showpiece in Porto.

The two men in the dugout will be tasked with creating the perfect conditions to give their team the greatest chance of success in what, for many of the players, will be the biggest game of their careers. 

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Ahead of the 2021 final, BTSport.com sat down with our very own Joe Cole and asked him to cast his mind back to 2008 and give an insight into what it's really like on the day.

For Avram Grant’s Chelsea, arriving at Moscow’s Ritz Hotel 48 hours prior to kick-off against Manchester United was about making things seem like it was business as usual.

“We kept the preparation as similar to a regular away game as possible,” says Cole. “We went two days before and we stayed in the same hotel as when we played in Moscow a few years ago [in a 2004/05 Champions League group stage clash against CSKA].”

“We trained the day before, kept it simple and light. Then got back the hotel and Billy [McCulloch] the masseur did some stand-up while we had our food!

“Then we ate and the chef Darren [Taylor] played the guitar for us. He’d always finish on La Bamba!

“After dinner we sat around conversing, giving each other a bit of stick. It felt normal because there was such a good team spirit but there was perhaps a little more energy in the air.”

Cole had played in an FA Cup final, won the Premier League twice and featured at a World Cup at this point, but the Champions League final was arguably the biggest game of his career to date.

Yet nerves weren’t a factor for the midfielder, then 26-years-old, who had no problems relaxing before the first all-English final in history.

“I slept like a baby the night before,” Cole continues. “I wouldn’t say nerves were kicking in at all… I compartmentalised it as just another game.

"You tell yourself that Champions League finals are going to be around all the time, you can’t think that this will be your only opportunity.

“The day of the game goes so slowly. I had some breakfast, just generic stuff, scrambled eggs, porridge with honey and some coffee and then JT [John Terry] and I sat around and played a few games of FIFA.”

Chelsea had finished two points off winners United in the 2007/08 Premier League table. The Blues lost 2-0 at Old Trafford and won the reverse fixture 2-1 less than a month before meeting at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.

The final was the sixth time these two sides met in 13 months.

And against a familiar foe, Cole maintained a steely focus right up until the Blues marched out onto the pitch in the Russian capital.

“The only time it really hit me that it was a Champions League final was when we were walking out past the trophy,” Cole adds

“As a footballer you try and control what is controllable, you try and concentrate on the game and not the occasion. But there’s still moments where you break away and realise where you are.

“There were no rousing speeches from the manager or the captain. What Avram did very well was that he understood the group and let us manage ourselves.

“We had leaders and captains everywhere so he was smart enough to let us get on with it. That’s a good form of management… We were a well-oiled machine and we tried to play it non-emotionally and it nearly worked.”

The match, which would go on until around midnight local time, took place amid heavy, relentless rain in Moscow.

Cristiano Ronaldo gave United an early lead before Frank Lampard levelled before half-time. For Cole, the game was one he approached with a steely focus and his recollections of the match are in fleeting memories.

“I didn’t even know it was raining until my parents mentioned the weather afterwards,” says the 39-year-old. “That shows you the focus, you block everything out and go into a zone.

“I have images of the game – I had a half chance, should’ve scored – and I remember thinking I could’ve got a penalty had I gone down when Rio Ferdinand came across me.

“These images stick in your head after the big games – the World Cups, the FA Cup finals and the Champions League final. But I was very average, it wasn’t one of my better games.”

A frustrating night for Cole was over nine minutes into extra time, substituted off for Nicolas Anelka with a penalty shootout looming.

“I understood the decision,” Cole admits. “Nicolas was a penalty taker. I got asked before the game: ‘Would I take a penalty?’ and I said: ‘Of course’… I couldn’t be an attacking player and not take one, but Nicolas was a regular whereas I’d never taken one in my career.

“Looking back, it would’ve been my number when Anelka stood up [and saw his decisive penalty saved]. Who knows what would’ve happened, I would have gone bottom left though, I know that!”

There were tears at full-time, most notably and most memorably from Terry.

The Chelsea skipper had the chance to win the trophy for Chelsea but he slipped as he took his spot-kick and it cannoned off the outside of Edwin van der Sar’s post.

“I take solace from the fact I think they’re the best side we’ve seen in the Premier League,” Cole reflects. “We were the width of a post away from winning, the stars just didn’t align for Chelsea.

“[After the game] I was consoling myself really. I’d run my course and put so much effort in and when you lose a game you just want to get out and go home to see the family. I wasn’t one for tears on the pitch but there was certainly a lot of emotion.

“You have to win with dignity and lose with dignity. You look back and think what a privilege it was to be on the pitch with those players and you conclude it just wasn’t meant to be.”

“If I was the Chelsea manager now, because they're so young I'd almost be pulling them back”
- Joe Cole

The Blues would have to wait another four years for another chance at European glory, when a less illustrious 2012 side overcame much-fancied Bayern Munich in Bavaria via a penalty shootout under Roberto Di Matteo.

Now, Chelsea are back at the final stage of Europe’s top competition, in another all-English final against a Man City team who finished 19 points ahead of them in the Premier League table.

Tuchel’s side are a far cry from the 2008 team. This season’s Chelsea, initially under the stewardship of Frank Lampard, are lighter on experience but packed with youth and energy.

The team that defeated Real Madrid 2-0 in the semi-final second leg featured key contributions from Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz and Reece James - all aged 22 or younger.

“If I was the Chelsea manager, because they are young men, you should almost be pulling them back because you don’t want them going out there too emotional,” Cole says.

“You should dampen down the occasion and let them play their game because their natural enthusiasm and fearlessness will come out.

"If it was an older squad, you can play on the fact it may be their last chance but with a young squad, you usher them out the door and they’ll be full of beans.”

As for a score prediction? “I think they’ll do it,” Cole affirms. “My bet is 1-1 after full-time and 2-1 in extra time with a late Timo Werner goal on the counter-attack.”

Find out if Cole's prediction is accurate across the BT Sport network from 6pm on Saturday 29 May.