After having watched the game a second time (just to convince oneself of the reality of the fantastic achievement), the euphoria and emotional hangover from beating the “best team in the world” has somewhat subsided enough to string together a few words. That the feat was achieved in a season when the club seemed to have lost sight of the present as it tried to break away from the past in search for a wishful future is doubly satisfying. Battling back from two-goals and a Captain, Leader, Legend down against the divine Barcelona seems to have come straight out of a fantasy fiction plot where a limited army stretched for capability and resources successfully keeps out a marauding adversary through sheer courage, discipline and desire. A modern-day equivalent of epic legends.
But this was more than a regular Champions League semi-final, given the not-so-small matter of seeking retribution for the injustices from three years ago. It was in May 2009 that I had witnessed my first moment of real footballing passion when Chelsea went out to a cruel, late equalizer from Barcelona. (Till that time, cricket still held the majority share of mind in terms of sporting enthusiasm for me, but it had a rather weakened emotional connect after two seasons of IPL mockery, leaving an emotional vacuum for football to fill into.) I look back at that match as the defining moment when I truly committed my heart to the Blues from London.
Since then, King Carlo delivered the domestic double but the most elite European prize was still elusive. And every European campaign seemed to end with a red card to Didier Drogba. May be the club was very impatient with its managers and sought instant success. We bought the prodigious Fernando Torres and turned him into a “has-been”. Detractors labelled our team as mercenaries who were only motivated by money rather than footballing pride. (It’s quite intriguing how they fail to see that the Chelsea team has had a more constant core of key players including Terry, Drogba, Lampard, Cole and Cech than most other teams in England.)
Then came AVB, who tried to change the philosophy of the club but showed an utter failure to grasp the ground situation and the need to still continue to succeed as he went about the transition. For the fans, the season seemed to have gone way out of control and it seemed that damage limitation rather than any success would be the expectation from the interim coach Roberto di Matteo (RDM).
It was rather fortunate to have RDM, who intimately understands the club from his past association, at hand to salvage the situation. Overturning a two-goal deficit against Napoli was the first indication that the season is far from over. Goals from Terry, Drogba and Lampard showed how wrong the press were in writing off the Chelsea old-guard. And then the winner from Ivanovic following a delightful turn from Drogba threw the Stamford Bridge into ecstasy. Oh but how I digress from the current moment of joy!
Barcelona has been the toughest test so far for RDM as a Blues manager. Not one person from the press or from among the experts gave Chelsea a chance of passing this challenge. Most went to the extent of stating that Chelsea would be “torn apart” by Barcelona. In a week when Chelsea first faced Spurs in the FA Cup semi final and then Arsenal away between the two Barcelona games, there was every chance that Blues would be destroyed, physically and emotionally, at the end of it all. That is, if one were to objectively analyze the situation without paying heed to the reservoir of passion, desire and energy that such big games inspire.
The first game was Stamford Bridge was a crucial one and the entire team responded with exemplary discipline and belief. It was expected that Barcelona would have the lion’s share of possession and Chelsea’s game plan was always to respond to outstanding attacking with resolute defending with fast counter-attacking when the opportunity arose. Many refer to it as negative football and the “parking the bus” approach. But what good is an outstanding attacking prowess unless it succeeds against world class defending? And it was a mere matter of accepting the reality of one’s shortcomings and adapting to the situation rather than trying to beat Barcelona at their own game. And this ability to adapt is what is the hallmark of a great team for me. Sure, Chelsea had a few instances of good luck, especially when Alexis Sanchez chipped over Cech to hit the cross-bar and when Ashley Cole cleared off the line. But that luck is of a different nature than refereeing errors in your favour. Come to think of it, hitting the cross-bar is the same as missing the target. You don’t get half a goal for hitting the cross-bar! And Chelsea took the one good opportunity to hit on the counter. Lampard provided a sublime pass to Ramires who then sprinted off like his life depended on it and crossed it to Drogba and it was in the back of the net. Classic counter-attack just before half time; the best way to hurt the opponent and go one up on the scoreline as well as in the mental game. And then follow it up with another 45 min of pass-pass-pass-shoot-block. Parking the bus is as much an art (ask any bus-driver! :-P) as doing your little tiki-takas. Getting the 1-0 victory at home and preventing that away goal was pretty much mission accomplished from the first leg though the goal cushion was too slender to sit back on.
Camp Nou, a bigger stage and a bigger and more hostile audience. The mind games on whether or not Drogba will start were well-played by RDM. The opening was again along expected lines with Barcelona trying to find their rhythm and Chelsea thwarting the moves at the key moments. Losing Cahill to injury, letting a goal in, then losing John Terry to an absolutely unnecessary aggression off the ball and then letting in another goal from an error from Meireles, it seemed that things were coming apart for the Blues. But great players shine through moments of adversity. Super Frankie Lampard produced another sublime pass for Ramires, like in the first leg, but this time, Ramires went all alone with a delightful chip over Victor Valdes, that could be a contender for Chelsea’s goal of the season. Chelsea were back on front on aggregate (via away goals) and the belief had returned just before the half time break.
Barcelona got the dreaded penalty decision early in the second half when Drogba was a fraction late and Fabregas promptly went down. And Chelsea would have to score again if Messi converted from the spot. Utter heart-in-mouth stuff. And what great joy when the shot hit the cross-bar and rebounded beyond danger! Lady Luck and the footballing gods were clearly on the side of the Blues. There was a sixth sense whispering that we would not succumb on this night. Barcelona shall not pass again. More patient tiki-taka and defending excellence followed and the crowd was getting nervous. Barcelona simply had no answer to this sort of defending and their belief was ebbing. Till they were completely knocked out by Fernando Torres, their nemesis during his Atletico Madrid days, who ran from the half line and went past a diving Valdes to bury it into the unguarded net and get Chelsea the well-earned place in the finals of the Champions League. Torres hasn’t been in the best of form since donning the Chelsea blue and despite great effort has somehow missed the net too often. The miss from an open goal against Manchester United in the early part of the season comes to mind. That was a sucker punch to his confidence in his finishing abilities. Perhaps this goal in the most important match of the season so far would give him the confidence to resurrect himself. May be he will start repaying the faith and the 50 million that the club invested in getting him to London. Too early to call but this could be the defining moment of his Chelsea career.
Barcelona were like the dinosaur, immensely powerful and seemingly invincible, but unable to adapt to the situation. They went on doing more of the same that wasn’t working. Their brand of football is quite impressive to watch but their shortcomings are more visible than ever before. And unless they adapt themselves, they are bound to lose the dominant position they have commanded in Europe over the last few seasons.
For Chelsea, taking the old guard into confidence and going one game at a time, RDM has done much more than salvage the situation. The old and young seem to be jelling well together and there is a palpable desire and unity of purpose in the team. And more importantly, with some strokes of good fortune (which have been rather difficult to come by over the years), we find ourselves in the finals of the FA Cup and the Champions League. There are still six more games to go before the end of the season and the injury list is lengthening. There is a chance that all the hard work might still come to nothing in terms of silverware at the end of the season. But the passion and resilience on display and the fact that we got our retribution by eliminating Barcelona will fill every blue heart with a sense of pride.
We have taught Manchester City how to beat Napoli, we have taught Manchester United how to beat Benfica and we have taught Arsenal and the rest of the world how to beat Barcelona!
Keep the Blue Flag flying High! Munchen, hier kommt die Blues!
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