The line separating joy and glory from despair and ruination is always agonizingly, tantalizingly thin in a sport like soccer, but in the case of Timo Werner’s Champions League final, it was especially so. The match, ultimately a 1–0 victory for Chelsea over Manchester City and thus almost certainly the greatest day of Werner’s sporting life, could have easily been an absolute nightmare for him. That is because, had Chelsea lost, blame for the result would’ve laid almost entirely at the striker’s comically-verging-on-tragically misfiring feet.
It took only 15 minutes for Werner to twice do the thing that has defined his debut season in England, which is to get himself into fantastic scoring position only to completely botch the resulting chance. The first instance came in the 10th minute, when Werner found himself on the doorstep of the City goal, with plenty of time and space and a nice and easy cutback pass coming his way, which he contrived to almost completely whiff on:
Just a few minutes later, Werner once again found himself in a very similar position in City’s penalty box, with another cutback pass heading toward him, only for the striker to fail to get his feet sorted out and sending a limp shot directly into the keeper’s arms:
The phrase “he really had to score there” is greatly overused and is almost never an accurate way to describe a sport where even the most inviting of chances on goal are exceedingly difficult to finish off. Shooting in soccer is a little like hitting in baseball, in that what separates the great from the merely good is that, while both fail more often than not, the former do so just a little less frequently than the latter. And while neither of the above two chances were gimmes necessarily, it is not at all unfair to demand that a player of Werner’s quality has to do better there. If Kai Havertz hadn’t bailed Werner out in the 42nd minute with what proved the winning goal, and had City found a goal of its own and gone on to win the game, then Werner’s blunders would’ve and should’ve gone down as a pair of unforgivable misses that cost Chelsea the title.
Now, the fact that Werner came this close to single-handedly losing the biggest game of the season and of his life with those two misses, which could’ve haunted his already error-laden Chelsea tenure and maybe even his entire career, is not the remarkable thing for me. What’s remarkable is that Werner blew those two early chances, probably saw what little self-confidence he’s managed to keep hold of during this disappointing season completely abandon him, and yet still kept playing his ass off in spite of it all.
Can you imagine what that had to feel like, to be at the tail end of a pretty crappy year individually, to have not one but two chances to redeem it all with a strike that by itself could’ve punctured the dark cloud of doubt and frustration and animosity hanging over you, and instead of scoring, flubbing both attempts in humiliating fashion? Can you imagine how much it sucked to have done the one thing you most desperately did not want to do, the thing you’ve already done painfully often this season, and to have done it on the biggest stage of them all, with almost an entire match still left to play? And can you imagine having the fortitude to realize the magnitude of your mistakes, to realize what they meant in the greater context of your season and your life, and nevertheless to keep on sprinting up and down the pitch, to keep dropping into space in search of the ball and another opportunity to succeed or fail, to keep everything out of your mind other than the immediate demands of the moment and the rote performance of your body and talent?
If Werner had responded to that second miss by running off the pitch, running down the tunnel, running out of the stadium, running to the nearest airport, booking a flight to Antartica, changing his name and identity, and never returning to civilization, I would have immediately understood. But instead of crumpling under the shame, Werner reacted the way he has reacted all season long when he has failed the seemingly unfailable: looking for a second like he’d just been given a vision of his eventual death, shaking that off, going back to his place on the field, and trying again.
Werner didn’t play a particularly good game in the final, but, as it has been all season, his constant threatening of the opposing back line with his searing speed was of crucial importance to Chelsea’s attacking strategy. It was, in fact, Werner’s savvy run and the City defense’s fear of his pace that cracked the hole into which Havertz ran for the cup-winning goal:
The Blues could’ve lost the match because of Werner’s misses, but also, without him remaining dialed in after those misses and continuing to play his game, they might not have won, either. Werner was by no means the best player in Saturday’s final, but because of how difficult it must be to royally fuck up in front of the entire world (twice!) and somehow not let it discourage you from going again, his performance was arguably the most impressive and the most life-affirming of all.