In what can only be described as the most underwhelming victory of all-time, Chelsea pulled the ultimate smash-and-grab job, defending for their lives all match, while scoring with their only shot of the game to steal a 1-0 victory heading into the return leg at the Camp Nou next Tuesday.
Never has a team done so much and earned so little. In a match where Barcelona outshot the hosts 24-4, held an 8-1 corner kick advantage, completed 600 more passes, maintained 79% possession, hit the posts twice, missed two open-net sitters and restricted the hosts to just one scuffed shot on target over the course of 90 minutes, the Catalans were rewarded with a devastating 1-0 defeat.
Hardly seems fair based on what was witnessed at Stanford Bridge. One team played to attack, the other to defend. But statistical dominance means nothing if you don’t put the ball in the back on the net and despite bossing the match, the blaugrana have only their profligate finishing to blame for an adverse result.
Luck played its role in the opening minutes when Alexis Sanchez collected Andres Iniesta’s pass inside the area and chipped a shot over Petr Cech, only to see his effort come clanging back off the crossbar before being cleared to safety.
Fabregas then saw a shot saved by Cech before missing an absolute sitter on 16 minutes. Messi’s bursting run opened up space for Iniesta on the left, who fired a low drive towards goal. Cech did well to parry away the strike, only for the rebound to fall to an unmarked Cesc Fabregas, who scuffed a shot off his shin from eight yards out with an open net at his mercy.
Messi nearly opened the count with a powerful header from Dani Alves’ cross, but Cech managed to dive low and smother the ball at the far-post. Barca continued to dominate chances and narrowly missed another on 42 minutes, as Messi shook his marker and charged towards goal with a full head of steam. His last-second pass to Fabregas saw the ex-Gunner produce a clever chip over Cech, only for it to be cleared off the line by Ashley Cole when it looked sure to settle in the back of the net.
Drogba failed to beat Puyol on a one-on-one minutes before halftime, as Chelsea focused their attacking efforts on long throw ins and occasional outlet passes to the lone target man. Meireles was fortunate not to receive a booking for a late challenge that would have seen him miss the return leg and Ivanovic dodged a bullet after pushing Iniesta to the ground inside the area. But match officials were intent on staying out of the news and did everything possible to avoid whistling game-changing decisions.
The half looked destined to end in a stalemate, until Drogba gave The Blues a shock lead, scoring on the final kick of the first half. Seconds after going down from a groin strain, Messi was dispossessed in midfield, allowing Lampard to send a long ball down the left flank to the marauding Ramires. The Brazilian did well to pick out Drogba at the far-post, as his pass rolled inches past the outstretched boot of Mascherano to the Ivorian, who scuffed a shot off his shin to the far-post. Valdes should have made the save, but reacted slowly and was only able to help steer it into the back of the net, giving the hosts a surprise 1-0 lead heading into the break.
A curious stat reveals Valdes to have only recorded 9 saves in the Champions League this season. He has been largely untested and when he has been, he has conceded. The Barcelona shot-stopper has, by a significant margin, the worst shot-to-save ratio of any keeper left in the tournament and tonight, when Chelsea took their one shot, he could not save it for his team.
Barca looked even more dangerous after the restart, with Adriano forcing Cech into a diving save with a right-footed curler before Alexis Sanchez made a blunder of another gilt-edged chance in the 56th minute, collecting a magnificent pass over the top from Cesc and sliding a shot inexplicably wide of the near-post from inside of six yards with only Cech to beat.
Pedro would come on for the Chilean with 25 minutes remaining, as Alexis walked gingerly off the pitch, complaining of stabbing muscle pain that may see him sidelined for this weekend’s El Clasico showdown with Real Madrid. But neither Pedro, nor substitute Thiago could find the killer strike, as the visitors became increasingly frustrated with their inability to score, as well as Drogba’s excessive and childish play-acting.
Messi fired a free kick into the wall, as Chelsea dropped deeper and deeper, shifting from their initial 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-1-1, to a 4-5-1 after the goal and ending the match in an uber-defensive Fort Knox 6-3-1 formation.
Barca laid siege to the Chelsea goal in the closing minutes, but were miraculously kept off the board by Petr Cech and the woodwork. Messi’s free kick in the 87th minute was glanced perfectly by Puyol to the far corner, only for Cech to produce an impossible diving save when the effort looked sure to go in. One last chance would fall to the Catalans in stoppage time, as Messi threaded a pass to Busquets in the area, who sent an audacious back-heel back into the path of the Argentine, only for Gary Cahill to get a saving touch on the ball as Leo rushed onto the pass. The deflection rolled to the edge of the area, where Pedro fired a low, first-time effort past Cech and ringing off the far-post. The visitors would save their worst finish for last, as Busquets ran onto the rebound and skied an effort high over the crossbar with Cech lying prostrate on the ground and nobody in goal.
The midfielder fell to the ground in disbelief, as the final whistle blew and a jubilant Stanford Bridge erupted into cheers over the home side’s fortuitous 1-0 victory. Play that match twenty times and Chelsea wins just once. But tonight was the one and Barcelona now head home with zero away goals and a serious case of the bad luck blues.
Fortunately there are two legs to be played and in defeat, there is always a lesson to be learned. Guardiola will make the necessary tactical adjustments and the players will surely play with a greater sense of urgency at the Camp Nou, but this match was perhaps a lesson for the fans. We look at the result and say it was just bad luck, plain and simple. But Chelsea knew what they were doing. A team with as many veterans as The Blues recognized that disputing possession would be suicide. They conceded the middle of the pitch and defended deeply, riding their luck and hoping to strike on one of their few chances. It was a successful formula. There is no reason to repudiate the North Londoners for their tactics. You always want to play the beautiful game, but sometimes it is impossible. Opposition like Barcelona do not allow you to play an attractive and open match. So, Chelsea dug in deep, withstood the bombardment and made their one chance count. There is merit in executing a game plan to perfection and doing what’s necessary to get the result, although Drogba should certainly be rebuked for his big baby attitude, as the Ivorian perpetually feigned injury, dove to ground and flailed about during the match. Wayne Rooney’s twitter comment summarized it best: “Drogba. You’re a good player but pls just get up already.”
Still, most of us regard good luck as a right, and bad luck as a betrayal of that right. This match was a lesson for our hubris, for believing that attacking football should always be rewarded with victory. It is a proud philosophy of Guardiola and one that should certainly be embraced, but it is not destiny. This match was not an injustice, treachery or bad luck, it was a reminder that in football, nothing is guaranteed and that clinical finishing, not intricate passing is what wins matches.
Guardiola was pensive in his comments after the match, accepting the result with surprising serenity. “Did we deserve more? The result is what it is. It was probably our semi with the most chances, but we did not score.” When asked about his side’s statistical dominance, the Barca skipper responded: “Football is not won by possession, otherwise we would win every game. The goals are what count. The challenge now is to again have 24 shots on Tuesday like we had tonight, and then score from those…the second game will be similar, Chelsea with ten men in the area, but let’s see if we’re more inspired. Turning this tie around is a great challenge and it’s one we accept. There are 90 minutes left to fight.”
The bottom line is that Chelsea recognized their own deficiencies and refused to play Barcelona’s game. Now, with a 1-0 advantage, they have given Barcelona plenty to think about. One away goal for The Blues and Barca will have to score three. It’s easy to get pessimistic over the result, until you take into account that the match was played in London. The Catalans bossed the match from beginning to end and created around ten clear-cut chances that could have easily been converted on another night. If Valdes makes just one save in the game, it ends in a scoreless draw.
This will be Chelsea’s best game of the tie. They will not play a better match in front of 90,000 plus fans at the Camp Nou. A bigger pitch in better conditions, with a trip to the final on the line; it is hard to see Barca not creating even more chances in the return leg and the law of averages insists that some of those shots will settle in the back of the net.
Barcelona’s imperious home form this season gives reason to hope. The Catalans are undefeated at the Camp Nou this campaign, outscoring the opposition 104-16 in the process. If the blaugrana are able to control the return leg, as they did in London, it will be over. Chelsea will not get away with that level of performance two matches in a row. They will have to play much better at the Camp Nou to withstand the Barcelona blitzkrieg and with the level of talent and ambition the Catalans possess, it is hard to see that happening. If Guardiola’s men have truly learned their lesson, they will finish off those chances in the first half, and, with a bit of luck this time, advance to the final in Munich.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.