“Who are ya?! Who are ya?! Who are ya?!” Cried the fans at Stamford Bridge to the three time world footballer of the year, Lionel Messi. He walked back to his position after the ball went out for a goal kick almost dejected, frustrated and annoyed at what was unfolding before him.
To the surprise of the vast majority and yes it was the vast majority, Chelsea overcame the first task in getting to the Champions League final after a valiant display resulted in a 1-0 victory over Barcelona.
The Cruyff ideology of ‘Total Football’ that Barcelona embody was met by what I refer to as ‘Total Defending’ and to use a phrase famous in the NFL. “Defence wins championships”
Credit first goes to the team selection and coaching staff. All the talk leading up to the game was how Chelsea would set up to defend what many hail as the greatest football team ever. Di Matteo went with a 4-5-1 but a variation that Chelsea had never played before to my recollection, he set the team up with three holding midfielders in Meireles, Lampard and Mikel. The first two flanking on either side of Mikel. This was a well drilled team, almost militant in its execution. The players were rarely drawn out of position throughout the whole 90 minutes.
My next plaudits are the fans. The support was incredible and constant, the last fifteen, twenty minutes there was a real desire to motivate the players and try help keep concentration levels up. It can only be said to have worked.
From the first whistle there was a clear intent by Chelsea to sit back and let Barcelona retain the possession that they crave. Being at the game their possession % of 70 seems lower than expected to I bet all those watching. There was a real desire by all the Chelsea players to maintain their discipline and not allow any gaps in between the lines, they invited Barcelona to go wide and cross the ball but the Catalans always tried to play the ball back into the congested midfield. As expected and mentioned in the preview, their dedication to their personal brand of football is not only their strength but the biggest weakness they posses. There is no alternative and when Chelsea set up a blockade in the middle of the field they tried constantly to go through it with little effect. It was almost a war of attrition.
This isn’t to say that Barcelona didn’t have their chances, it only took 8 minutes to realise how good their passing and movement was as Iniesta played in Alexis Sanchez who was only denied by the bar as he lobbed the ball over Petr Cech. Fabregas then squandered their best first half chance as he miscued the rebound from Iniesta’s saved shot. The former Arsenal player was then denied by an ex team mate in Ashley Cole as he had his effort cleared off the line.
For 45 minutes, it just seemed as if Drogba was in one of those moods to not play but it only takes a split second for the Ivorian to make an impact. Lampard dispossessed Messi and set Ramires free down the left wing into the vast space that Dani Alves had left. Ramires ran to the edge of the box and slid his cross in for Drogba to scuff home. He ran to the crowd and saluted the fans as a member of the ‘Old Guard’. It was the last kick of the first half and Barcelona were shell shocked. They had conceded in the exact manner they would’ve planned on preventing.
The second half continued as more of the same, Barcelona retained the majority of possession but had very little to show for it, arguably their two brightest stars Messi and Xavi had seen the least of the ball, the former now dropping back into midfield just to remember what that round object they were kicking around felt like. A sight that no doubt delighted all those associated with Chelsea, the further Messi was from goal the less of a threat he is and the more players in his way. The few times he managed to break away with a dribble it either ended with his shot being blocked or a tactical foul on behalf the Chelsea midfield to prevent him causing any real damage.
Wasteful, not usually the trait you’d brand Barcelona with but after Sanchez missed his chance from only 6 yards out it began to look like it wasn’t going to be their day.Frustrated that they were getting no success, Guardiola brought on Pedro, Thiago and towards the end of the game Cuenca to add more legs and more width to the team. Xavi’s exit was testament to the great work by the Chelsea midfield in stifling the heartbeat of the Barcelona engine. Messi had by now lost faith in his teammates to provide the final ball and kept dropping back but left no option ahead of him. Barcelona seemingly missing their one and only natural striker David Villa.
Chelsea brought on Kalou and Bosingwa to replace Mata and Ramires, both wide players had done nothing but track the Barcelona full backs up and down the pitch and it was likely to have taken a toll on their energy levels. Ramires had also been booked previously, Di Matteo would likely have had that in mind when replacing him.
Disbelief, the feeling that many of those Barcelona players must have felt as Sergio Busquets lay on the 6 yard line of the Chelsea box after skying his shot over the bar in front of an open goal. The ball came to Pedro, whose effort beat Petr Cech but not the post, the ball then fell kindly to Busquets who couldn’t do anything but swing a leg at the ball which sailed over the bar. Full time. The crowd erupted with a wall of noise, the cheers lasted for quite some time.
The performance – It was as stated before the result of a well drilled unit, it was the third time Barca had been shut out under Guardiola in the knockout stage of the Champions League and the second time it was Chelsea who had stopped him. There was no one who you could say did not fulfil his duties brilliantly. It wasn’t the perfect performance but it wasn’t far off it. Gary Cahill and John Terry in the heart of the defence were monumental, it was a game that needed Cahill to step up and he did just that with a performance worthy of man of the match.
Ashley Cole has come under scrutiny this season, not least by me but his performance yesterday was a reminder that on his day he is still the best left back in the world. There isn’t much to separate the performance of Mikel, Meireles and Lampard. Mikel played as the central of the three and kept the whole team in shape, his performance was simply outstanding. Whilst the two next to him seemed to always surround Messi whenever he picked up the ball and frustrated the Argentinian throughout.
This wasn’t the ideal game for Juan Mata but he showed his dedication to the cause for the team. Rarely finding himself on the ball, Mata was faultless in his defensive duties. As for the man on the opposite wing, we all know Ramires loves to run and he did just that. It isn’t an easy task to cover Dani Alves marauding runs, let alone providing the outlet for your own team’s attack but he did just that and did it perfectly.
Didier Drogba will be remembered for his time wasting and play acting but this was a performance of a man who done whatever it took to win, he matched fire with fire and gave Barcelona a taste of their own medicine. He was a dominating presence when on the ball, his hold up play was as exceptional as ever and the Barcelona defence resorted to having three players contest aerial battles with him to little success. He scored the all important goal in the tie and left his mark on the Barcelona defence with his physicality.
How good would Petr Cech be had he not got injured? He was incredible yesterday, his save from Carles Puyol in the dying minutes was one of the best seen at Stamford Bridge. He is no doubt one of the best around, still.
For the neutrals it wasn’t the greatest display of attacking football, the contrast from Sunday’s performance to yesterday are miles apart. Am I, or an any Chelsea fan going to complain that we sat back and let Barcelona play their game? Not in the slightest. For all the long ball football Chelsea may have played, Barcelona were beaten by a classic counter attack and great move. Anyone attempting to discredit Chelsea’s performance is either bitter or jealous, there isn’t only one way to play football as much as Barcelona’s players would like to tell you otherwise. Guardiola said it best when he claimed that his team failed to make an impression on the most important statistic.
It would be foolish to think this game is over. Chelsea still probably remain the underdogs but history is in their favour. 14 of the last 15 teams to hold a lead in the Champions League semi final have gone through. Barcelona haven’t beaten Chelsea in the last six meetings and Chelsea remain the only team that Pep Guardiola has failed to beat. Next stop Camp Nou.