They came,they saw and they kept possession as ever, but this time they couldn’t quite conquer. Barcelona arrived in West London this evening with the sound of a Spector-esque wall of praise ringing in their ears. They’re a great side. Indeed, if it is possible to draw comparisons across the different eras of the game, then they might just be the greatest of all time. Tonight, however, when they turned on the tap in the expectation of at least a trickle of goals, they found it to be blocked with a defensive performance so obdurate that it sometimes felt as if the Chelsea defenders were only one step away from bricking up Petr Cech’s goal and having done with it. The only moment of the game that really counted for anything – more than possession statistics, more than passes completed, number of glasses of water converted to Pinot Grigio in the mixed zone after the match, anything – came at the other end of the pitch, in stoppage time at the end of the first half, when a low cross from Ramires was turned in by Didier Drogba, who otherwise put in a performance more worthy of Drury Lane than Stamford Bridge. We shouldn’t, however, dwell for too long upon Drogba’s histrionics this evening, because this can only detract from a defensive performance from Chelsea that deserves as much praise as we can throw at it.
So how, then, do you take on this Barcelona team and beat them? The key to Chelsea’s win was in recognising their own shortcomings and minimising them, appreciating their opponents’ strength without being cowed by them and playing with just enough of a soupçon of arrogance to to unsettle a team which excels in battering teams into submission with a sheer weight of possession, pushing and poking until a direct route to goal comes into view. You also need to right legs, heads and back-sides to be in the right places at the right times, as demonstrated by several extraordinary tackles and clearances from Chelsea’s defenders throughout the match, and sterling performance from key players. There wasn’t a Chelsea defender that didn’t put in one of their performances of the season tonight. Such results also require a little luck, and Chelsea had theirs in stoppage time when Pedro threaded a low shot through the eye of a needle, past Cech’s dive and out off the post. The ball bounced kindly for Sergio Busquets, but the Barcelona midfielder suffered a momentary rush of blood to the head and drove his shot high over the goal. The cheer that greeted this miss was almost as great as the one that had followed the Drogba’s goal, and was the final confirmation that this evening was not to be Barcelona’s evening. Some you win, some you lose.
This evening’s result also shines a light upon a manager who is only in his position on a caretaker basis. Roberto di Matteo may not have succeeded in the managerial seat at West Bromwich Albion, but there can be little doubt that he has transformed what had been a chaotic season for Chelsea since taking over from Andre Villa-Boas. Reaching the FA Cup final might have been considered plenty for a manager promoted at a club with a lengthy (and well deserved) reputation for volatility when it comes to the hiring and firing of coaches. To have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League is a whole different layer of achievement for di Matteo, and to have beaten Barcelona in the first leg of that semi-final is another again. We don’t know whether di Matteo is having a protracted honeymoon period at the club or whether Chelsea has stumbled, perhaps by accident, upon somebody capable of meeting – or getting close to meeting – expectations borne of almost a decade of success, but we can say that he, like so many of his players this evening, didn’t put a foot wrong this evening.
What must it feel like to take the pitch at the Camp Nou stadium to face this Barcelona team? To look up at the electronic scoreboard and see those ninety minutes stretching out in front of you? To know that you will probably spend most of the next ninety minutes chasing shadows, that they will prod and poke, check for weaknesses and pass with dazzling accuracy until you collapse like a house of cards? Well, Chelsea will find out the answer to at least the first of these questions with the second leg next week, and here’s the problem with Barcelona in the Champions League. Chelsea pushed, they stretched, they hassled, they gave it everything and they managed to squeeze a one goal win this evening. Their reward for this – apart from a warm, satisfied glow that will last at until they play Arsenal in the league at the weekend – is to have to do it all again, in Barcelona’s back yard. It’s a relentless competition is the Champions League, and Chelsea will still need the performance of a lifetime if they are to avoid being on the end of Barcelona’s wrath in the second leg. Such considerations, however, are probably for tomorrow morning, though. This evening is for Chelsea supporters to wallow and bask in the knowledge that their team took on the very best and beat them. There can be little question that this has been one of Chelsea’s greatest European nights.
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