Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Survival Of The Fittest: Chelsea Reach Champions League Final

By Shane Thomas


(Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate and reach the 2012 Champions League Final)

Well it was never going to be dull, was it? An unforgettable night in Catalunya ended with Chelsea upsetting the odds and knocking Barcelona out of the Champions League. An incredible rearguard frustrated the holders and ensured that a tough week for Barca had a miserable denouement.

Despite taking a 1-0 lead to the Camp Nou, Chelsea had begun the match as severe underdogs. They had only 26% of the ball six days ago, and there was no reason to expect this to be surpassed in the 2nd leg. This wasn't only the biggest game of the season for Chelsea, but also for Barcelona. This was proving a watershed week for the blaugrana; a Champions League semi-final, followed by an encounter with Real Madrid that would decide the destination of the La Liga title. After losing the 1st leg, as well as Saturday's clasico defeat against Los Blancos, Barca were facing the possibility of losing three successive matches for the first time under Pep Guardiola's stewardship. That they avoided this ignominy will be of no comfort to the Catalans.

As expected, Barcelona monopolised possession, trying to pull Chelsea's nine-man defensive line out of position and exploit gaps. In the main, the West Londonders managed to plug any and all areas of danger, but twice in the opening 20 minutes, sumptuous interplay put Lionel Messi in on goal. However, the coruscating Argentine hit the side netting with his first effort, and Petr Cech's (who was the game's best player) legs with the second.

As often happens when a side dominates the ball, Barcelona had a steady stream of corners. But aware that Chelsea had superior height and power (even more so when Gerard Pique had to depart with a suspected concussion), Barca decided against committing men to the penalty area, leaving the bulk of their players on the edge, waiting for the inevitable Chelsea clearance, and ready to start a second wave of attack. This was a shrewd move from Guardiola as it resulted in the opening goal.

As the ball dropped to Dani Alves, Chelsea's defence were out of position, and Alves played Isaac Cuenca into space. His square ball picked out Sergio Busquets, who tapped home to level the tie. A few minutes later, we had a moment, which threatened to be the game's major headline.

Alexis Sanchez went down, and after audio consultation with his assistant, the referee sent the Chelsea captain, John Terry from the field. Many (me included) hadn't seen the incident in question, and it looked as if the conspiracy theorists would be out in force. However, the television replay cleared any confusion as - seemingly unprovoked - Terry drove a knee into Sanchez's back, and was correctly sent-off, ruling him out of the final.

Barcelona didn't take long to make their numerical advantage count, as Messi went on a dribble, and committed two defenders before sending Andres Iniesta clear. The "glowworm" found the far corner of the net to make it 2-0. Barca now held the superiority with players on the pitch, as well as on the scoreboard. With mere minutes of the half remaining, the contest looked over.

But in stoppage time of the opening 45, we had what proved to be the game's crucial moment. While in his own half, Ramires managed to dispossess Xavi and found Frank Lampard. Xavi neglected to follow Ramires' forward run, which proved costly as Lampard played the Brazilian clear with a superb reverse pass. After taking a second to assess Victor Valdes' position, Ramires chipped the goalkeeper to draw Chelsea level on aggregate - and put them ahead on the away goals rule.

When looking back at this game, one should not underestimate just how decisive this goal was. Not only did it restore Chelsea's lead, but the goal was stunning in its execution, robbing Barcelona of the momentum they had built in the first-half. They had no time to find a third before the half-time whistle. Despite them scoring twice and having a man advantage, it was "as you were" after 45 minutes. The Catalans were forced to try and follow the famous Sir Alf Ramsey quote before extra-time in the 1966 World Cup Final, "You've beaten them once, now beat them again."

This became a test not only of Barcelona's technical skill, but of their temperament. With the scoreline advantage, but a man short, Chelsea had only one recourse; defend, defend, and defend some more. They couldn't afford to have any players in attack, with Didier Drogba forced to into action as an auxiliary full-back. He performed this role with admirable application and tenacity, but it nearly cost Chelsea the match. Cesc Fabregas played a one-two with Messi and went down in the box from Drogba's challenge. It was a rare mis-judgement from the referee, as Fabregas was shown to have dived. Messi stepped up to give Barcelona the advantage, but hit the crossbar with the spot-kick. While some will bring up the fatuous statistic about Messi having never scored against Chelsea, this was his 3rd penalty miss of the season. If anything, this was a mental failing from the world's best player, making the identity of the opposition irrelevant.

Despite Messi's failure to score from 12 yards, Barca still had over 40 minutes to find the goal to take them to the final. With Chelsea offering no attacking threat, this was the time when many expected the blaugrana to put Chelsea on their "passing carousel". But Chelsea had obviously taken lessons from how Real Madrid denied the Catalans on Saturday night, forcing them to pass sideways, keeping the ball away from potential scoring areas. Only once was Chelsea's ancillary back-line exposed, but Cech came to the rescue making a good save from Cuenca. The only other occasions he was forced to make saves were long range efforts from Javier Mascherano and a late attempt from Messi, which he tipped onto the post.

But I would be mildly alarmed if I was a Barcelona fan. For three consecutive matches, they have failed to break down well-structured defences. Some have laid the blame at Guardiola's door for tinkering with the formation that won them the Spanish league & Champions League double last season (they lined up with a 3-3-4), others have said he has overpromoted young tyros, such as Cuenca and Cristian Tello (his exclusion of Pedro in this crucial part of the season has left me extremely puzzled), not to mention a realisation of how important David Villa was to the balance of the side, before a broken leg ended his season.

But Barcelona's main problem is that their key attackers are not playing well. There is a patent overreliance on Messi, who looks to have hit a wall. After 55 games, and competing in last summer's Copa America, it's not that surprising. His goal tally has been mindboggling, but he hasn't had a break from the game since the summer of 2009.

If Messi is Barca's most crucial player, Xavi is not far behind. He's had injury problems and is getting to an age where he may be on the wrong side of the curve - in terms of productivity. His passing was unusually sluggish and erratic.

This is the first major test of Guardiola's management career. He's known nothing but consistent success since taking charge at the Camp Nou, but this will be his first season without either the Spanish title or the Champions League to show for it. It's too early to declare this the end of an era, but it's no longer folly to pose the question. How Guardiola, and his players react, will say a lot about the durability of this crop of players - that's assuming he doesn't take his leave at the end of this campaign.

And it was durability that was the difference over the two games. Chelsea are probably the only side in England that could go through a change of manager, unrest amongst the playing staff, capricious ownership, have injuries to important players, a mend and make-do approach to team selection, and still find a way to eliminate one of the finest groups of players the sport has ever seen. Yes, they had large slices of fortune, but  it would have meant nothing without them capitalising on it.

The final goal being a case in point. In the dying embers of the contest, Fernando Torres - on for an exhausted Drogba - gave the ball away, leaving him out of position in the Barcelona half. However, Barca were so desperate to attack that they had absconded all defensive responsibility. A few seconds later, a hopeful clearance played Torres through on goal with only Valdes to beat. And the Spaniard kept his nerve, winning the tie. And while this never would have happened without Torres conceding possession, he still had to be clinical to finish off the opportunity.

What was so impressive about Chelsea's defensive display was how stereotypically "Un-English" it was. Last ditch tackles and "brave" headers were at a premium. Xabi Alonso once made the astute observation that a slide tackle is not something to laud but to criticise, as it's a symptom of being caught out of position. Well, Chelsea were seldom caught out of position, keeping their shape with discipline, maturity and intelligence; qualities that are often overlooked when people speak of good defenders.

The West Londoners have earned a day to celebrate their achievement. But Roberto Di Matteo will have sleepless nights trying to pick an XI for the final. Along with Terry's red card, Raul Meireles, Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic picked up yellow cards, ruling them ineligible to play at the Allianz Arena. With potential injury concerns surrounding David Luiz and Gary Cahill, Chelsea's back four on May 19th may be even more of a patchwork combination than it was in Barcelona.

And regardless of their opposition, they will arrive in Munich as the underdogs. Be it against Bayern Munich, who have a squad littered with gamebreakers, and will essentially have home advantage or Real Madrid, who have usurped Barcelona domestically and have arguably the world's finest coach in Jose Mourinho, Chelsea will have to defy the odds once again to become the first London club to win the Champions League (or it's old incarnation, the European Cup).

But after one of the most dramatic matches in Champions League history, anything is possible. And no-one believes that more than Chelsea.

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1 comment:

  1. A brilliant summary of an interesting match, I heard on the news that Chelsea only had 16% possession, unbelievable to score two goals in that time.