UEFA, according to conspiracy theorists, have “got the final they wanted”. Chelsea were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona last night, and the opening line of this post is already being widely repeated as the truth. One would have to have a heart of stone to not feel some degree of sympathy for Chelsea – they had approximately two and a half strong calls for a penalty waved away and Barcelona’s goal was their only shot on target of the entire match. There is a big difference, however, between this and a conspiracy of any sort.
The flip side to this argument is that if there was such a massive conspiracy against an all-English final, why did the referee send off Abidal for barely making any contact whatsoever with Nicolas Anelka? The most persuasive argument of all would be to say that Barcelona scarcely deserved the win over two legs, but that the referee had a pretty poor night overall, with decisions that affected both sides. Talk of a conspiracy theory, if anything, proves how detached from reality the Premier League has become, especially when there is no basis for it bar a poor refereeing performance.
The behaviour of Chelsea’s players haranguing the referee at the final whistle made it yet more difficult to feel much sympathy for them. We all know how tempers rise in the heat in the moment, but continuing the argument after the final whistle only really brings a degree of embarrassment upon the club. What, exactly, did Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack hope to achieve? Were they hoping to talk the referee into bringing the Barcelona players back out onto the pitch and restart play with a penalty to Chelsea? It would have been setting some sort of bizarre precedent if they had.
At full time, they gave us something to laugh about, at least. The sight of Michael Ballack chasing back to the half-way line with Ballack shouting in the referee’s ear and the referee sprinting away from him like a cat caught urinating on the carpet will be one of the mental images of the season. At one point, it looked as if John Terry was going to burst into tears, bringing back memories of his waterworks after Chelsea lost on penalties to Manchester United in Moscow last year. On the other hand, one felt sympathy for Frank Lampard and Guus Hiddink – Hiddink in particular could have been forgiven had he completely lost his rag at the post-match press conference, but instead remained a model of restraint and self-control.
This was the first time that an English team has lost to a non-English team in the European Cup since Milan beat Liverpool in the 2006 final. As such, last night’s result is hardly something that anyone should be getting too worked up over. After all, Chelsea still have the minor consolation of an FA Cup final against Everton to loom forward, and they’ll all be back next season, steamrollering their way through to the latter stages of the competition. This time, though, their luck ran out, and Barcelona will play Manchester United in Rome. One suspects that United were the biggest winners of all last night.