After over 180 minutes of tense, Barcelona dominated football, Chelsea have defeated the Catalan behemoth over two legs and booked their place in the final on the 19th of May. But how exactly did Chelsea manage the unthinkable and knock out the team that has been called ‘the greatest team of all time’, and includes the ‘Argentinian Maestro’ Lionel Messi?
Firstly, Chelsea’s nerve and composure must take the majority of the praise thrown their way. As assumed they set up to stop Barca from scoring (or at least to keep scoring to a minimum), a style of play which won them the first leg, and no fans in the Spanish media, who have labelled their play ‘vulgar’ and ‘barbaric’ among other choice words. However, Chelsea’s set up looked like it would require a major shuffle after key incidents in the first half changed their objectives and the resources with which to achieve them. Firstly, Busquets’ opening goal for Barca meant that Chelsea would now have to offer some kind of attacking threat, otherwise the tie was, at best for The Blues, headed to the dreaded realms of extra time and penalties.
Perhaps the fear of taking a penalty lead John Terry to knee Alexis Sanchez in the back of the leg and earn himself a straight red card. His motives of intimidation were obvious, and although many may say it’s part of the game, the fact is it was a stupid thing to do considering the match he was playing in. After the match, Terry said he hoped those who look at the incident would remember he is ‘not that sort of person.’ Personally I feel that if Chelsea do file an appeal, the one thing Terry should hope for is that they don’t take into account ‘the sort of person Terry is’. Perhaps Wayne Bridge or Anton Ferdinand will offer up a character reference.
Back to the football, and suddenly Chelsea are one down and down to 10 men. A formation change led to Chelsea operating a 5-5-0 formation, with no more than ten yards between the defensive line and the midfield. An immediate reply did not seem to be waiting in the wings. In fact, it was the home team who struck again; World Cup winner Andreas Iniesta added another, and put Barcelona in charge of the tie.
Suddenly, for two whole minutes Chelsea were heading out of the Champions League. Who could blame the London club for failing against the great Barcelona, whose first leg loss to their opposition had been unfortunate to say the least, and whose el classico defeat was one that could have gone either way? With the defence in chaos, and Di Matteo counting down the seconds so he could get his team in for half time and talk them through mission impossible, Lampard set up Ramires for a cracking chip over Valdes’ head. Ramires took his goal very well and once again the pendulum of victory swung the way of Chelsea.
To say Chelsea’s goal was against the run of play would be an understatement, and to suggest that Chelsea could hang on considering the state of their team was laughable. With Terry off, Cahill previously off injured, the first choice centre backs were off the field. David Luiz is still on the mend following a hamstring injury in the F.A Cup, so Ivanovic moved into the centre along side Bosingwa, with Ramires tracking back into right back, Cole and an out of position Didier Drogba making up the rest of the back line.
Indeed, Drogba’s career as a central defender may be short-lived, albeit his impressive aerial prowess, with a lunge at Cesc Fabregas; who felt inclined to go to ground in the penalty area. The ex-Arsenal man seemingly landing the hammer blow on his former rivals, and gifting Lionel Messi his 15th goal in the tournament, which would have given him the record for most goals scored in a single campaign. Alas, the script said otherwise and Messi’s penalty thundered off Cech’s crossbar and out of the area. Only 42 minutes remaining for the Blues to hold out.
Barcelona’s opportunities didn’t stop there; they also had a goal correctly ruled out for offside, and Cech tipped a Messi shot onto the post, but in the final 30 minutes is when Chelsea’s defensive structure kicked into gear. They allowed Barcelona the ball on the edge of the box, knowing Barca’s preference to pass and move rather than shoot from distance, and instead focused on limiting opportunities for Barcelona players inside the area. It seemed that Barcelona lacked urgency, but in truth Chelsea’s formation simply didn’t allow them to play the killer ball Barcelona are widely praised for. Barcelona did even resort to a few shots from outside the area from the likes of Xavi and Messi, and although there are no better strikers of the ball in the game, Chelsea held strong.
On the 79th minute, Didier Drogba came off for Fernando Torres, a straight striker swap, which seemed odd considering the scenario they found themselves in. However, the logic was there; firstly, Chelsea had to offer some form of attack, otherwise Barcelona could push everyone forward without fear of counter attack, and secondly, Torres showed his outstanding work rate against Napoli, closing down in attack, midfield and defence, and holding up the ball to bite away at the remaining seconds.
In the last 10 minutes, all eyes were on the Chelsea goal, then to the clock, then back to the goal. Barcelona’s dominance in the match was obvious, and yet they had not unlocked the Chelsea defence that seemed so vulnerable under Andre Villas Boas, and of course was a man light due to the captain’s early dismissal. What followed next was always a threat for Barcelona, but few can fault them for pushing forward.
With 10 of their 11 players in and around Chelsea’s area, the counter attack seemed a threat providing Chelsea could clear and had someone with the energy left to attack Valdes in the Barcelona goal. Of course, the script dictated that man had to be Fernando Torres, widely criticised due to his high price tag, and underwhelming goal record for Chelsea. Torres, picked the ball up in Chelsea’s half and ran at Valdes’ goal. Valdes, seemingly caught in two minds, was susceptible to Torres’ pace, and the striker rounded Barca’s keeper and rolled the ball into the net. Cue pandemonium.
The game ended 2-2 on the night, and 3-2 over the two legs, seeing the London club into the final in Munich,to face either Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid; a match played tonight, with Bayern holding a one goal advantage.
As I stated earlier, praise was rightly given to Chelsea’s defensive capabilities. Putting 11-men (or in Chelsea’s case 10) behind the ball and shutting up shop doesn’t always end in the attacking team being deprived of goal scoring opportunities, so credit must go to Chelsea, considering the creative talent Barcelona possess, they were stifled in the second half and couldn’t get the goal they desired so badly.
The negativity Chelsea have received in the press about their formation and style of play is justified if you believe every team should play flowing, passing football. However, had Chelsea tried that, odds on Barca would have recorded a cricket score. As the saying goes, ‘it’s horses for courses.’ The Spanish press can stick to their criticism of Chelsea’s play, but football is not played in the same way, and Chelsea saw what was needed of them to progress and stuck to it. Going out in the semi-finals playing fluid football may be an attractive way of approaching the game, but ultimately the result matters. Chelsea weren’t the best team over the two legs, but they are the ones in the final.
Roberto Di Matteo must also be praised for his substitutions. When Juan Mata was taken off for Salomon Kalou, I was perplexed, as Mata has arguably been Chelsea’s best player this season. But what Di Matteo’s thinking was was that Mata is Chelsea’s best player on the ball, yet Chelsea aren’t spending much time on the ball. Kalou offers more of a counter-attacking threat, plus has more energy for the cause. Same with Drogba for Torres, a substitution which paid off in more ways than one, although question marks were raised regarding Torres trying to dribble the ball out of his area, enough to make any Chelsea fan’s heart skip a beat. Of course, Cahill for Bosingwa was a necessary substitution, due to the injury of Cahill, but Di Matteo managed to get the message across as to how to reshape the defence.
So now what for Chelsea. QPR on the weekend, a game in which Chelsea can’t afford to drop points in, just in case they need to qualify for the Champions League the old-fashioned way and come 4th. After that, Newcastle, Liverpool and Blackburn in the league, The F.A Cup final and of course the Champions League final against the winners of tonight’s game in Madrid. It’s all set up for a Hollywood ending, but that doesn’t mean it will end that way. Such is the way the world is.