Possession, then, might only be nine-tenths of the law after all. When push came to shove at the Camp Nou last night, the young tigers of Barcelona were cast aside by Chelsea’s old dogs in a match of events so improbable that it at times stretch the credulity of the viewer. Such, though, has been the nature of Chelsea’s season since the departure of Andre Villa-Boas two months ago. This sacking, which looked as if it would be a signal of a failure of transition for Chelsea Football Club, might yet come to be seen as a fortuitous catalyst for a European triumph that nobody saw coming.
There had been signs of late that the Catalan halo may be starting to slip. Whilst they were arguably a touch unlucky in London last week, they were lackadaisical and out-manoeuvred on home soil by Real Madrid last weekend and other, albeit sporadic, displays of fallibility have also been dsplayed over the last few months. Yet somehow the players and the system continued to make defeat in this of all ties seem unlikely. Chelsea couldn’t simply pitch up for this match, defend for their lives for ninety minutes and hope for the best, but what was to follow was the sort of evening when every chalkboard in the land gets hurled through the nearest window and the “script” (usually one written by the media rather than the players themselves) gets doused in petrol and set alight, and the curious witching powers of The Senior Pros take on powers which demonstrate every accumulated inch of the experience garnered over the years.
The floodgates might have opened when Barcelona took the lead after thirty-six minutes, when Sergio Busquets rolled the ball over the line from close range. This goal had been accumulation of a lot of hard work and a lot of passing, a slow, steady build up of pressure which was relieved by the ball finally ending up in Petr Cech’s goal. With two minutes, Chelsea’s night went from bad to worse. What was going through John Terry’s mind when sticking his knee into the back of Sanchez’s legs – if anything: it’s perfectly plausible that he wasn’t thinking anything at all – may never be known, let alone understood, but the dismissal of the central defender and captain didn’t feel like a rupture that Chelsea would be able to recover from.
In the space of the three minutes immediately prior to half-time, though, the story if the evening twisted and turned again. With barely a couple of minutes if the half left to play, those floodgates creaked again, more tippity-tapping, this time ending with Iniesta rolling the ball past Cech to put Barcelona into the lead on aggregate. The feeling that Chelsea’s chance had come and gone didn’t last for very long, though. In stoppage time at the end of the half, though, came salvation for Chelsea and the moment upon which the match ended up pivoting. It came on the break of course, a move that caught Barcelona’s defence with half an eye on the half-time whistle, and ended with a sumptuous chip from Ramires. It was a goal that put Chelsea back into the lead but also changed the entire timbre of the match.
If Barcelona were psychologically ill-prepared for this set-back, then what followed ten minutes into the second half might have brought about a full-blown nervous breakdown for some Barcelona supporters. There was, we might reflect, a certain irony in a penalty conceded after a player goes down theatrically under a challenge from Didier Drogba, but such concerns were rendered irrelevant when Lionel Messi – yes, that Lionel Messi and not, so far as we are aware, an imposter – thudded his penalty kick against Cech’s crossbar.
With this one kick, the dulling inevitability of another Barcelona cake-walk started to diminish into the distance. One can perm any one from dozens and dozens of statistics to strike fear into the heart when it comes to this Barcelona team, but in the flurry and the fury of a Champions League semi-final this flew out of the window. Barcelona pushed, of course, but Chelsea’s make-shift defence held firm, and on the occasions that it was breached Petr Cech was putting in one of his more accomplished performances of the season in goal.
And then in stoppage time, Fernando Torres, so villified over the last sixteen months after failing to live up to the stratospheric expectations placed upon his shoulders since his jaw-dropping transfer from Liverpool, finally repaid a chunk of the faith placed in him by those that always felt that he would come right in the end by breaking and scoring the goal to remove any further doubt about the verdict of this extraordinary, tumultuous, gripping tie. Chelsea, whose season seemed almost beyond the point of disintegration just a few weeks ago, will play Real Madrid or Barcelona to become the champions of Europe next month.
With this result comes further confirmation that the accidental architect of Chelsea’s recent and dramatic upturn in fortunes, caretaker-manager Roberto di Matteo, might yet be the man to calm Roman Abramovich’s itchy trigger-finger when it comes to managerial hiring and firing. Should Chelsea win this competition – or, indeed, the FA Cup – next month, the case for giving him the job on a more permanent basis will be strengthened to a point at which it will start to be difficult for the club to not offer him the position. He has, by general consensus, already constructed a convincing case.
Barcelona, of course, will be back. Their financial largesse and the extraordinary portfolio of players already at their disposal – few of whom, we might reasonably assume, would wish to voluntarily leave the club – demands it. For the generation of Chelsea players that has dragged the club, occasionally kicking and screaming, to its second Champions League in five seasons, though, this may be something of a last hurrah. The senior Chelsea players are now mostly heading towards the twilight of their careers. Last night, however, they pulled off a performance of vintage maturity, one which tamed the team that has come to define the era of European football that we are currently living through. If they were to finish this of all seasons as the champions of Europe, it would be a final, definitive twist to this strangest of seasons for English clubs on the continent.
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