On the 18 May 2012, Chelsea Football Club beat Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final. It put them in a marvellous yet delicate position for the second leg, away at the Camp Nou, Barcelona's home ground. Yet while Chelsea did indeed have a great advantage going into the game that followed, no one expected what would happen that night on 24 April 2012. History was about to be made.
Barcelona are widely considered one, if not the best, club side in the world. Their footballing philosophy embodies everything that is good about the game and their team is full of home grown, world class players, spear-headed by their crown jewel Lionel Messi, arguably the best player in the world. For the best part of three years we saw this generation of Barca players regularly sweep aside anyone who dared oppose them, winning trophy after trophy after trophy.
It should have been expected then, that eventually we would see the rise of the antithesis of emobdiment. If Barcelona were the masters of attractive possession based, high pressing football then it stands to reason that eventually we would see a team competing with them that practiced exactly the opposite; negative, defensive football that relied solely on rare counter attacks to score goals and win games. And while this is by no means Chelsea's preferred style of football, it is the one they adopted when facing the prospect of Barcelona in the Semi-Finals.
In the first leg at Stamford Bridge, Barcelona dominated possession and created a host of chances, but Chelsea held on and went on to win the game 1-0, courtesy of a Didier Drogba strike on the brink of half time. But while this was in itself an impressive victory, the game would pale in comparison to the one that followed on that famous night in Spain. The night where Chelsea drew 2-2 with Barcelona and qualified for the Champions League final.
Make no mistake, this was a momentous occasion and the scene of a comeback which Chelsea have every right to be proud of. Barca went 1-0 up courtesy of Busquets' opener, and when they went 2-0 up after John Terry's red card it looked as if there was no way back for them, 2-1 down on aggregate and down to 10 men against the best club side in the world. But in first half injury time, Ramires scored on the break to ensure they would go through on away goals. Barcelona dominated the second half, wasting every chance they got including a Messi penalty that crashed against the bar only for Fernando Torres to race clear on 90 minutes and equalise, and Chelsea won the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
It was a shock result that reverberated around Europe. Chelsea hadn't been the first team to "park the bus" against Barcelona by any means, but they were the first successful one. Those two results proved that not only could Barcelona be stifled with a defensive style of football completely opposite to the one that the Catalonians played, it could be used to beat them. When Chelsea used the same approach to win the Champions League final even though they were without four players from their starting XI (one of which was Captain Terry) it drew further attention to the fact that you didn't necessarily have to dominate teams like Barcelona to win matches against them. And while of course Chelsea should be extremely proud of their achievements in Europe last season, it appears to have set a dangerous precedent in matches since.
This was most evident in Euro 2012. Spain are rightly considered the best international side in the world, having become the first to team to win three tournaments in a row. Their footballing philosophy is very similar to that of Barca: high pressing and possession based, with an emphasis on a gorgeous array of passing to control the play, helped by the fact that they have a host of players from the Catalonian club in their starting XI. But before that third consecutive trophy, Spain had their share of criticism during the summer tournament. Not because they were losing, or playing badly, or even cheating their way to victories. Spain were accused of being boring.
With the exemption of their second group game against ireland (where the clear gap in quality saw the Spaniards score 4 goals without reply), Spain seemed to take their time, electing to control the game rather than constantly attack the opposition goal. Some put this down to the lack of a striker in the starting line up. The ireland game was the only time Spain started a forward, and Torres scored 2 goals in the thrashing that followed. Some believed this meant Spain lacked penetration in the final third. Others claimed that the problem was that because Spain were using Barcelona's style of play, they lacked a Messi character that would provide the extra penetration for such a system to work, even though Fabregas seemed to doing a decent job in the false nine role.
However, another possible reason that Spain's style of play appeared to lack penetration lied in the way that opposition teams set up against them. Perhaps inspired by Chelsea's Champions League victory over Barcelona, Spain's opponents set up to and sometimes even abandoned their own footballing philosophies with the intention of "doing a Chelsea". This meant defending in numbers, soaking up pressure and hitting the World Champions on the counter attack. Ireland attempted it, but were punished by conceding four goals for doing so. Croatia attempted it and were arguably unlucky to lose their final group game 1-0.
France attempted it in the quarter finals, completely abandoning their usual style of play by removing Nasri (although admittedly that was more to do with non-footballing reasons), filling the midfield, leaving Benzema upfront on his own and starting two right backs. It didn't work. Spain slowly squeezed the life out of the French and comfortably won the game 2-0. Non-Spanish fans came away from the match feeling less than entertained.
Some might consider it harsh to blame this on Chelsea's performances against Barcelona. After all, the club were simply living within their means and had to come up with a gameplan to beat a team widely regarded to be better than them. That is true; Chelsea deserve full credit for their success in this sense. But when entire nations start taking a leaf out of Chelsea's book and "park the bus" against Spain, then it is time to consider the repercussions.
This retaliation from several teams across the world appears to be ruining such an attractive footballing philosophy. Spain were once considered one of the most entertaining teams in the world, with the vast majority of fans agreeing that their brand of football was a joy to watch. Now, with multiple sides preferring to sit back and limit their opportunities as much as possible, it has apparently turned Spain's matches into dull affairs even though their philosophy is still the same as when they won the World Cup in 2010.
Of course, teams are well within their right to do this; no one should expect them to simply sit back and take a tonking when Spain possess such obvious quality. But it does seem to harm the spectacle of Spain's matches, and that is worrying. The fact of the matter is, the longer that teams decide to "do a Chelsea", the more it will affect Spain's game to the degree that they are simply considered uninteresting.
Spain are not a boring team. They are simply the victims of Chelsea's success.