So, it’s a Champions League semi-final and this isn’t merely Barcelona versus Chelsea. It’s “Mas que un club” versus Chelsea, Catalunya versus Chelsea and Europe versus the Premier League. Has it come to this? Are Barcelona the only continental club that can take on the swagger of the Premier League and give them a game? It certainly seems so, though Milan will probably be back in this competition next season. Part of Barcelona’s continuing ability to stay roughly in touch with the top Premier League clubs is down to the Spanish television deal which allows them to sell their rights without any collective bargaining, but it’s also in part down to the sheer scale of the club.
Everything about Barcelona is massive. The Camp Nou is the biggest football stadium in Europe, holding over 98,000 people, and it’s due to be expanded to hold 110,000 people soon. It may be an optical illusion, but even the pitch looks huge, with the players dwarfed by everything surrounding them. The noise, the colour, the crackling tension – on a night like this, it’s a full sensory overload. In their two previous Champions League matches, they have been 4-0 up at half-time. The expectations are as massive as the Camp Nou itself, and it is this level of expectation that might be Barcelona’s achilles heel.
Their results for this season make for remarkable reading – they’ve scored six against Sporting Gijon, Atletico Madrid, Valladolid and Malaga, and five against Basel, Sporting Lisbon, Almeria, Deportivo La Coruna and Lyon. The match starts to a crescendo of noise, but the football is unsatisfying. Passes are overhit, players slip on a greasy surface and Barcelona, for all their pressure, create virtually nothing of any real significance in the first half. Indeed, the only real chance of the opening half falls to Didier Drogba. Rafael Marquez makes a hash of a backpass, and suddenly Drogba is in on goal. His shot is powerful and forces a fine save from Victor Valdes, who also manages to scramble the rebound away. The home players are getting frustrated and nervy, and the crowd are doing likewise. Half-time comes with the score goalless and not much else of note having occurred, bar a shot from Thierry Henry that brings a comfortable save for Petr Cech.
The second half starts with renewed vigour. Alex crashes into the back of Thierry Henry and, for a second or two, it looks as if Henry has been knocked out, but he recovers quickly enough. A couple of minutes later, Marquez goes down after doing something that may or may not be pretty horrible to his knee, and has to be carted off on a stretcher. By the time that Dani Alves and Didier Drogba drop to the floor, one suspects that the referee is starting to lose patience with them. With a shade over twenty minutes to play, Samuel Eto’o gets free in the penalty area but finds his shot blocked by Cech. With the Nou Camp crowd starting to get quieter, Henry is tugged in the penalty area as he tries to turn and shoot, but the referee – perhaps surprisingly and almost certainly incorrectly – waves play on.
In the final ten minutes, Barcelona look surprisingly sluggish. They’ve scored in every other home match that they have played this season. Perhaps they have forgotten how to be urgent. As the clock ticks over ninety minutes, though, a golden chance – Alves crosses from the right, and the substitute Krkic, seven yards out and in front of goal, heads over. There’s still time in the five minutes of stoppages for Barcelona to muster another clear chance, but this time Hleb’s shot is blocked by Cech, and he turns the rebound into side netting. And with that, it’s all over. A chorus of whistles and boos ring around the Camp Nou. All to play for in the second leg.
This is a decent result for Chelsea, but not a great one. The lack of an away goal means that they must win at Stamford Bridge in the second leg to get through without, at best, the need for a penalty shootout. Barcelona probably stay marginal favourites, though is little to choose between the two teams. Sharper-eyed observers will have noted that I have now watched a Premier League match and a Champions League match on successive evenings and managed to not see a single goal. Meanwhile, the two Blue Square South play-off matches being played tonight have managed ten between them. Another ninety minutes of my life that I won’t get back.