In one of the most tense, but satisfying, games I have ever watched (in any sport), Chelsea used the old Italian "catenaccio" strategy to complete a two-game defeat of the great Barcelona team in Europe's soccer Champions League semifinals. The 2-2 final score today at Barcelona combined with a similarly dramatic and shocking 1-0 defeat the Blues inflicted on them at home last week to send Chelsea through to the final. Chelsea's hugely improbable win combined skill, pluck, and luck in equal measures.
Football's version of Muhammad Ali's "rope-a-dope" was executed to perfection by Chelsea, which has rallied strongly in the past few weeks to save a failing season since the change of coaches to one of its former stars, Roberto di Matteo. They packed in their defense close in their penalty area, allowing Barcelona to dominate ball possession overwhelmingly, but still looking for opportunities to break downfield. When those occurred Barcelona's defense was thin and uncoordinated, which gave Chelsea real opportunities to score. In contrast, Barcelona's pinpoint short-passing game gave them lots of views of the goal, but few uncontested chances, and the defensive pressure contributed to them missing several shots, while giving them very little chance to surprise. Chelsea's last line of defense, goalie Petr Cech, was the final element required; he made several critical saves, particularly in the second half of today's game, when one goal would have put us back into a deficit (and a man short--more on that later).
Nevertheless, there was every reason to doubt the ultimate success of Chelsea's bold venture until injury time of the last game, when Fernando Torres broke free for a goal that clinched the victory. Chelsea held the edge, nominally at least, throughout the second half, as their "away goal" scored late in the first half of the first game had given them the tiebreaker in the combined two-game score of 2-2, but the outcome was on a knife-edge, and Barcelona was the one wielding the blade. They never found the opening to make the killing stroke.
For Barcelona fans, their worst moment was when their superstar Leonel Messi missed a penalty kick midway through the second half. Despite various Cech attempts to distract and throw him off, and despite Cech's accurate guess of the direction, Cech was beaten by the shot high to his left, but the shot caromed directly off the woooden crossbar and was safely cleared by Chelsea. The penalty call on that play was dubious--the player went down but there was little to no contact from Didier Drogba (another brilliant game for the striker, this time mostly on defense in their outer circle). The referee was also generous to the home side when he gave an immediate red card to Chelsea captain and central defender John Terry midway through the first half (he kneed a much shorter player in the back, but it was not malicious, just awkward). That came in the middle of a nightmarish ten-minute span 30-40 minutes into the first half when Barcelona scored both its goals, taking the lead in the series and threatening to break it open.
Then came the sublime moment when Chelsea turned it around. As in the first game's goal, Lampard started the break with a steal at midfield and a perfect pass down to Ramires. This time, instead of threading the needle with a crossing pass through defenders to Drogba, Ramires broke free from the defense and floated a shot over Barcelona's goalie when he came out to challenge, scoring from some 20 yeards and giving Chelsea back the lead, which they never gave away. And that was the theme: they never gave it away. Particularly inspiring for our defense was left back Ashley Cole.
As a result of referee decisions in this game, four key Chelsea players--Terry, Ramires, stalwart central defender Ivanovic and defensive-oriented midfielder Raul Meireles--will all be unavailable for the championship game, to be played in Munich in three weeks. In the meantime, they still have an outside chance of winning a Champions League spot, if they can move up from 6th to 4th in the Premier League standings. Otherwise, they will need to win the final to remain in Champions League play next year. Failing to do that--particularly if they fail to finish 5th or win the F.A. Cup final vs. Liverpool in late May, one of which would be required to qualify for the B-level "Europa League"--could start a downward spiral toward mediocrity after these years of marked success. What they really need, though, is to complete the dream of their moneybag owner Roman Abramovich and finally take the Champions League title.
Posted a day late. (I refrained from calling out the traditional "Chelsea Rules O.K.!" in the title--I used it once before, in the season when Chelsea similarly had won through to the Champions League final, in 2008. It ended very cruelly and unluckily in penalty kicks against Man U., and I want to break free from any associated jinx.)