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|Champions League Special: Chelsea come up trumps, Barca still reign supreme|
“We're going to Munich! We're playing the big final!”, were the words of Chelsea’s Juan Mata after the English side held out for a draw at Camp Nou to eliminate Barcelona from the Champions League.
Chelsea’s achievement in reaching the final was against all odds and expectations. In an underachieving season, partly due to the failed experiment of Andre Villa Boas, the Blues have gone on to do the unthinkable. Under the guidance of caretaker manager, Roberto Di Matteo, who deserves to be considered for the permanent role, they have qualified for the Champions League final. Who would of thought?
Not only this, but, they have done so by eliminating the competition favourites; Barcelona. They went undefeated over both legs. Even more astonishing, they somehow clawed their way back from two goals down at Camp Nou – with ten men no less, I mean, no more.
They rode their luck, certainly. But, luck is part of any success. Barcelona will be well aware of this themselves. Three years ago at Stamford Bridge they were the lucky ones. The Blues, on that night, were denied at least two clear cut penalties, if not more, which could have seen them make the final instead.
This time around, however, Barcelona were the unlucky ones. They hit the post twice, Lionel Messi missed a penalty and Gerard Pique was forced from the field with slight concussion midway through the first period. The ball just did not want to fall their way.
Yet, still, they played with an advantage for much of the contest. John Terry’s moment of madness and deserving red card meant that Chelsea were forced to play out an hour of the match with ten men. For all their wizardry and wonder, Barcelona’s nimble world-beaters could not make it count.
Though, at one stage, it looked as if they would. Six minutes had elapsed since Terry’s dismissal when Barcelona went two goals to the good. A superb ball by Messi played Andres Iniesta in on goal and the number 8 neatly slotted the ball past Petr Cech. A man down and with the home crowd roaring on their side, it seemed that it was game set match. Another Barcelona victory seemed inevitable. Wrong.
Such is football that everything can change in an instant, and it did. A sublime through ball played by an off-balance Frank Lampard sent Ramires darting through on goal. The Brazilian’s finish, a delicate chip over Victor Valdes, was that more likened to an over-confident striker, like Didier Drogba, who was again a beast up front and, oddly, at full back too.
It was Chelsea’s first real chance of the game and they took it with stunning ruthlessness. It completely changed the complexion of the tie. At 2-1 Chelsea were going through, not Barcelona. As the two team’s headed into the break, Barcelona were left with more questions than answers. More doubt than certainty.
A man down, with the half-time score enough to advance, the second half story was written before it started; Barcelona would go on the attack again and again, while Chelsea, with a makeshift centre-defensive duo of Branislav Ivanonvic and Jose Bosingwa, would be forced to defend and hope for the best.
What was not written, or expected, was that their plan would work. In a stirring display, one that will be long remembered, Chelsea incredibly held out. As mentioned, luck did play its part. However, the visitors deserve plaudits for the way they defended. They were disciplined, organised and tireless. It may have not always text-book defending, but, it was effective.
For all their attacking talents and despite playing with four sometimes five players in attack, Pep Guardiola’s side struggled to pry open the Blues rear-guard. The lack of physical strength and height within the Barca ranks was exposed as a real problem. Their attackers, the likes of Isaac Cuenca, Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were simply outfought, outmuscled and out-jumped by the likes of John Obi Mikel, Ivanonic, Bosingwa, Ramires and Lampard.
After losing in the first leg at the Bridge, there remained a sense of optimism in disappointment in the Barcelona camp. They had created numerous chances and had it not been for some poor finishing, they would have come away with more. They thought that in the return leg the goals would come. And, they did, but, not enough to compensate for their evident vulnerability at the back when confronted with one, at times, no strikers.
Following their loss to Real Madrid, whispers were being told that, perhaps, this era of Barca dominance was coming to an end. And, that maybe this was just the start of it. At the time such rumours were radically premature. But, there will be no halting them now. They will come thick and fast.
In the space of four days the Catalans have conceded defeat in the race for La Liga. They now find themselves out of Europe too. The Copa del Rey is all they have to play for now, like Real this time last season.
There were warning signs when Barcelona were kept scoreless at Milan’s San Siro. They had not been failed to score in a European tie since September 2009. Chelsea went one better than the Italian champions, recording a one-nil victory in the first leg against them. Then at the Camp Nou on Saturday, Real Madrid, despite having just over 20 per cent possession, beat them on their own turf. Real had more shots, they were deserving winners.
After diverting away from his usual approach in the Real game, Guardiola reverted to type. Barcelona were to attack down through the heart of the Chelsea defence. Fabregas, Messi, Sanchez, Andres Iniesta and Xavi all deployed to make this work. On two occasions, it did work when they created two clear chances. The result, two goals. But, clear chances were not created enough.
Chelsea continued to frustrate and forced their hosts wide. As the minutes ticked and as they increasingly began to rely on crosses into the box, Chelsea’s aerial and physical advantage began to tell. Pep’s diminutive champions were no match.
Perhaps, it seems, teams finally now know how to get the better of Barcelona. Let them have even more possession, pack the box, force them wide, be organised, be disciplined, be tall, be strong, be fit, and, be lucky. Real did not need much luck, but, Chelsea certainly did.
The very fact that there is only one way to play against Barcelona – as described above – is a testament to how good they are. That it requires a sterling performance from any team, including Real Madrid, to defeat them only proves one thing, they are the still best. It does not happen often, but, when Barcelona do go down it is always a shock. They are always favourites and next season they will be again. It is not the end of the era.
Barcelona lost to Chelsea, but, this does not mean the Londoners are better. The better team just did not play well on the night and when this happens in football it is anyone’s game. Last night it was Chelsea’s.
How the match ended; well, it just had to be. It just had to be him. Fernando Torres. The nemesis of Barca, he now has eight goals in 11 matches against them. Heavily criticised for his lack of goals for Chelsea, of all the nights the former Atletico Madrid star could redeem himself, earn a place amongst the club’s faithful, and make his case to be taken to Poland Ukraine to Vicente Del Bosque - who was present – it was on this night.
But, it was not only Torres who proved the doubters wrong. Stalwarts Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have had their share of criticism too this season, Ashley Cole too. But, how they answered them. Now, they - the old guard of this Chelsea side - have the chance to write a new chapter that will define their time together at the Bridge and it will come on May 19, when they could possibly be up against an old friend; their former boss Jose Mourinho.
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