Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Chelsea find the blueprint
Kevin Palmer, Stamford Bridge
They were the team who provided the world with the first blueprint to halt Barcelona's brilliance and on a high of high octane, captivating Champions League football, a fearless Chelsea side claimed a priceless victory against the reigning kings of Europe.
• Chelsea 1-0 Barcelona
• Drogba: Chelsea have learnt lessons
• Chelsea v Barcelona gallery
It was in an infamous Champions League semi-final of 2009 that Chelsea showed how to tame Lionel Messi and his Barcelona colleagues, as a relentless work ethic and immaculate discipline throughout their team stunted the pass masters of the modern game and should have paved the way for a victory against Pep Guardiola's men, only for the lamentable efforts of Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo to deny them they glory they deserved.
Three years on and following the same master plan, Chelsea were rewarded as Didier Drogba's well taken effort in the final seconds of the first half proved to be the only goal of a game that saw Barcelona twice rattle the woodwork and fluff their lines in front of goal time and again.
The statistics for this one-sided contest confirm that it was a mismatch in all but the scoreline as Barcelona completed 782 passes compared to Chelsea's 194, with Drogba's winning goal the only shot his side managed on target all evening, yet this was an example of a team nullifying a great opponent and coming up with the one passage of play that really mattered.
For all their pretty passing, their magical invention and their menacing intent in the West London rain, it was Chelsea who scored the only goal of this leg and, in doing so, gave themselves every chance of ousting the team so often hailed as unstoppable when they travel to the Camp Nou for the return match next Tuesday.
"Barcelona are a unique team as they have so much quality and will always dominate possession," a cool, calm and collected Roberto Di Matteo said. "Clearly we knew what to expect and we were not disappointed, but it was a collective effort that took us over the winning line.
"It was a great result for us and, as we expected, we had to do a lot of defending. It is all about trying to limit their threat and trying to limit their chances. It was a collective performance, which is always the way it has to be against Barcelona."
Heroes were strewn across the Stamford Bridge turf as Chelsea clung on to their lead with only the occasion flutter of panic and, while Barcelona could justifiably claim they created enough chances to put the semi-final to bed in one attempt, the reality is they have it all to do back on home soil.
Alexis Sanchez's inability to dip his shot just under the crossbar when he was presented with the ideal chance to open the scoring after eight minutes was compounded by Cesc Fabregas's failure to convert when he was sent clear on goal by the less than effective Messi three minutes before the break, yet the first half was to end on a defining note.
Lampard's success in stealing the ball away from Messi sparked a speedy Chelsea attack that was given impetus by the increasingly impressive Ramires, who found the perfect cross for Drogba to fire home past Valdes.
It was a memorable conclusion to what had been a comical first-half performance from Chelsea's veteran striker, with large sections of a packed-out press box unable to hold back gasps of spontaneous laughter as Drogba's theatrical display left most dumbfounded.
Crashing to the floor before writhing in what appeared to be desperate agony every time a Barcelona player dared to brush off his muscular 185lb frame, Drogba's shameless habit of feigning injury and then miraculously recovering within a matter of seconds was as pathetic as it was unnecessary. As it turned out, his winning goal came in the two minutes of time that had been added on for his first half 'injuries', yet Barcelona only had themselves to blame for their failure to equalise.
Adriano, Sanchez and Carles Puyol all went close to finding the equaliser in the second half, with Pedro striking the woodwork and Sergio Busquets putting the rebound over the bar in what was the final act of the game, leaving Barca coach Guardiola to try to find a silver lining on a night of frustration.
"After this result, you have to say Chelsea are now favourites to reach the final," the downbeat Barcelona coach said. "They were a little stronger than us and, while we missed too many chances, we knew it would be difficult to score against Chelsea.
"I am not their manager and if people say their tactics were negative that is their opinion. All I would say is they have been in the Champions League semi-finals for six out of the last nine years and they have a method of playing that is difficult for any opponent to overcome.
"Yes, we had more possession, but this game is about scoring goals and we have to find a way to do that in the second leg at the Nou Camp. It will not be an easy task for us as this is the perfect scoreline for our opponents."
In the end, Chelsea survived the ultimate test of their resolve, as Di Matteo's team of battle-hardened warriors stood up to the Barcelona machine and refused to buckle under their generally deadly spell. The end result may have been a tale of the beast prevailing over the beauty, but you could only admire the victors for executing their mission improbable in such immaculate fashion.
It will take another herculean effort from Chelsea to keep another clean sheet in the second leg against a team who rarely fail in front of their Catalan masses, but these particular opponents will step into the Camp Nou cauldron next week relishing their challenge rather than quivering at the thought of it. That alone gives Chelsea a hope of reaching the Munich final - and an away goal would give another dimension to the game next week.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gary Cahill. Chelsea's January signing has been curiously overlooked for many key games since his arrival from Bolton, but he was given his chance to start in the biggest game of the season with David Luiz injured and looked the part against Barcelona's attacking superstars. Alongside skipper John Terry, the Blues' new boy was immense.
BARCELONA VERDICT: Their failure to take their chances and inability to break down a dogged, committed Chelsea side may be ominous with the second leg in mind. If they concede first in the second leg next week, Guardiola's men may hit the panic button.
CHELSEA VERDICT: This may have been a backs-to-the wall Chelsea effort against a Barcelona team on the front foot almost from the first minute to the last, but it was the mentality and work-rate of the home side that earned them a victory. Interim boss Di Matteo and his players have every right to toast a revival that could end in the glory that was unimaginable just a few short weeks ago.