Chelsea's Big Blue Bus was back again.
What. A. Match. Try and make sense of the remainder to this paragraph: Barcelona went 1-0 ahead through Sergio Busquets before John Terry got sent off for trying to dead-leg Alexis. Barcelona then doubled their advantage courtesy of Andres Iniesta. Ramires then scored on a breakaway goal to give Chelsea parity on aggregate (2-2) and thus through on away goals. Barcelona spent the second half trying to break Chelsea down and were awarded a penalty, which, shockingly, Lionel Messi missed. Barcelona continued trying to break Chelsea down when in the 90th minute, Fernando Torres, on as a substitute, scored to seal Chelsea’s progression to the Champions League Final.
That’s a whirlwind paragraph to read, and really, where do you start when trying to exlain what happened last night in Camp Nou? Let me start from the beginning…
Chelsea travelled to Barcelona as overwhelming underdogs, despite holding a 1-0 aggregate lead from the first-leg. It’s only natural that a team travelling to Camp Nou are branded as underdogs, purely because they’re playing Barcelona, a team who brag star talent in abundance, such as Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. Barcelona’s Nou Camp pitch is vast and has exposed many teams before now, regardless of their quality. Only two years ago, Barcelona put five past Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid, a fact which only highlights Barcelona’s ability. Rightly so, Barcelona have been branded the best club side to have ever played.
Whilst Barcelona have been guided to unprecedented glory under Pep Guardiola, Chelsea have worked their way through managers how a five year-old would get through new shoes. Since the end of last season, Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas Boas and now interim manager Roberto Di Matteo have taken the managerial reigns at Stamford Bridge. Turbulence in the Chelsea dressing room and a lack of continuity has lead to an awful league campaign this year, yet Chelsea had managed to fight their way to a Champions League Semi-Final.
Before the match, everybody in the world knew Chelsea would go to Barcelona and defend their one goal advantage as Barcelona tried to pass their merry way around them. It took just a few seconds for that trend to settle as straight away, Barcelona pushed Chelsea back to the edge of their own area and started to pass in that hypnotising way we have come to know. Chelsea had formed a wall of white as Barcelona tried to look for gaps in a defence resembling concrete.
Thirty-five minutes in, Barcelona were to open the scoring. A Barcelona corner was headed clear by Didier Drogba, yet not far enough and straight away Barcelona were on top of Chelsea and when Issac Cuenca beat his marker, a simple pass across the six yard line was enough to undo Barcelona as Sergio Busquets lurked at the back-post to tap home for 1-0.
Just minutes later, ultimate drama struck the Nou Camp. Alexis Sanchez was standing as still as a lighthouse on the edge of Chelsea’s area when John Terry came behind the Chilean international and inexplicably drove a knee into the back of Alexis, seemingly attempting to dead-leg to speedster. Alexis went down to ground in pain and when the 5th official informed the Referee of what had happened, Terry was rightly awarded a red card.
Despite what we all think of John Terry as a man, we know who he is a football player and that is an ultimate professional who takes pride in his captaincy of Chelsea. Terry has not picked up a yellow card throughout Chelsea’s Champions League campaign this year, so why would he suddenly act in such a way as to damage the chances of his team making the Champions League Final? I can’t begin to explain why Terry did what he did, I just know that what he did was horribly wrong and I hope (though it’s unlikely) Chelsea punish Terry internally for his actions.
Five minutes later, Terry’s indiscretion was punished as Lionel Messi fed Andres Iniesta a killer pass from which the Spanish international would slot past Petr Cech with consummate ease. I don’t mind admitting that at this stage, I considered Chelsea as dead along with the Dinosaurs. Down to ten men, losing 2-0 and behind on aggregate to the best team in the world is a steep mountain to climb.
Amazingly, just two minutes after Iniesta scoring, Chelsea had hope. Frank Lampard’s through-ball gave Ramires time and space in which he chipped an onrushing Victor Valdes to make it 2-1 in the match itself and 2-2 on aggregate, with Chelsea now going through on away goals.
All of this in 45 minutes? From my position on the settee I felt almost dazed by what I was watching. No way in hell should Chelsea be going through on away goals in those circumstances, but down to men they were still battling.
More of the same was required in the second half, though it took just a few minutes for Barcelona’s relentless pressure to conjure up an opportunity when Didier Drogba tripped Cesc Fabregas inside the penalty area.
Drogba hadn’t tripped Fabregas, the Spaniard had dived and had Lionel Messi converted his penalty rather than striking the bar, thus sending Barcelona through to the final, it would have been very amusing to see a clash between little Cesc Fabregas and the hulking figure of Didier Drogba. The world seemed just when Messi hit the crossbar following Fabregas’ dive and once more, Chelsea got back to defending for their lives.
Pass, pass, pass, Barcelona were relentless in their pressure, always closing Chelsea down whenever Chelsea dared take possession for a moment and 73% possession in Barcelona’s favour tells its own story.
Despite Barcelona’s dominance in possession of the ball, the only chances they created were half-cut and there was no moment, Messi hitting the post aside, where you felt Chelsea were in immediate danger.
With three minutes added time, Chelsea were so close to a Champions League Final, they just had to keep Barcelona at bay for a few minutes to reach what had seemed an unlikely final, sitting on a Ramires away goal.
Another Barcelona pass had fallen to a Chelsea shirt and in a desperate hack clear from out of their penalty area, Fernando Torres, on as a substitute for Didier Drogba, was in acres of space, no Barcelona defenders near him as the Spaniard ran clear at goal with only Victor Valdes to beat. After what Torres has suffered in the past year, I was so happy to see Torres round Valdes and score to put Chelsea through against Barcelona.
A minute later, the referee had blown for full-time and Chelsea were rightly jubilant in their celebrations as they had defeated Barcelona in the most epic of Champions League matches.
Many people this morning, particularly of Spanish heritage, will moan that Chelsea’s victory is, ‘one for Chelsea, but not for football’. For me that is pure, 100% rubbish. I said last week that Chelsea needed to play to their strengths in order to win and guess what? They won! It is a results business and those on their moral high horse, spouting off from the lip over how good Barcelona were in possession need to exile themselves to a faraway land.
On my FourFourTwo stats app it gives you a feature showing where players were positioned mostly throughout the match. If you look at Barcelona’s, it shows Xavi, Iniesta, Keita, Fabregas, Alexis, Tello, Messi and Cuenca all grouped together in the middle of the pitch. All of those players were guilty of coming inside and trying to play in non-existant space. No matter how good a team is with the ball, they need variation. When did Barcelona ever stretch the Chelsea defence by going wide? Barcelona never tried anything different and a player Barca desperately needed last night, is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. People say he was a flop at Barca, but I don’t call 16 goals and 7 assists in 29 appearances a ‘flop’, I’d say that is a pretty good return!
With Ibrahimovic, Barcelona could have crossed the ball, having their wingers hug the touchline in an attempt to stretch Chelsea and thus present space to their central players. Ibrahimovic would have given Barcelona the variation they so needed last night. No matter who Barca sent on last night, the player coming on was always the same as the one going off.
For all their greatness, Barcelona are becoming easy to read, examples are Real Madrid at home on Saturday and against AC Milan away. A team needs to be efficient with their passing and if one way fails, try another. Barcelona were trying to sell a dead Horse for ninety minutes last night and never considered the use of a different Nag. All of Barcelona’s 700-plus passes were the same, none of them any different in style to the other and that is their problem when faced with a team like Chelsea: No variation.
As for Chelsea, on the same iPhone app I looked at where their players had been mostly and it shows Chelsea’s players in perfect shape. Chelsea aren’t shown to be scattered, their players are organised into banks, all dedicated to a job and position.
Last night was a fantastic showcase of fight, spirit, determination and professionalism. Chelsea are through to the Champions League Final.