What a week. After suffering a league-deciding 2-1 defeat to Madrid on Saturday, Barcelona’s 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou against 10-man Chelsea now sees the Catalans bow out of Europe’s elite tournament. Two trophies wrestled from the defending champions’ grasp in three days…now I know what it must feel like to be an Arsenal fan.
I pulled away from the screen yesterday afternoon in disbelief, desperately searching for explanations – maybe Pique’s concussion had caused delusions bi-proxy? Yes, this must be a hallucination. That makes sense. At least more sense than the result, for how on Earth could Barcelona, possessing such an abundance of talent and pedigree, possibly squander a 2-0 home lead against ten men in the biggest match of the season.
Unsure of reality, I re-watched the match, had a drink, went to my optometrist, poured another stiff one and watched it again. I suffered a sleepless night, while visions of Petr Cech and his damned goal posts danced through my head. It’s a nightmare from which I am still trying to awake. But my excuses and delusions have worn thin. There is no substance to them, just bitterness in defeat. Clarity has returned and now it comes time to saddle up and answer the question hanging on the lips of every Barcelona supporter worldwide: how the hell did that just happen?
1) Wasted chances
Barcelona lost this tie because of an inability to convert their possession advantage into goals. The Catalans took 47 shots over the two legs, hit the post four times, averaged 80% possession, out-passed Chelsea by over 1,000 passes and had just two goals to show for it. Profligate finishing. That is why they lost. Messi’s miss from the penalty spot symbolized the offensive futility of the blaugrana, as they failed to beat Chelsea for the seventh straight meeting.
Up 2-0 in the 45th minute and playing against 10 men at home, Barca had it set up for an easy three or four goal victory. But Chelsea withstood the barrage and struck gold on their limited opportunities. The Blues were ruthlessly efficient and proved that clinical finishing, not intricate passing is what wins games.
It goes back to the old adage: anxiety is the vulture that sits on your shoulder. After watching the visitors pull one back before halftime and Messi miss a penalty, Barca got nervous, lost the script and collapsed.
2) Chelsea had a plan
Chelsea employed the same strategy in both matches: packing it in, keeping things narrow and taking their chances on the counter. In succeeding, they reminded us that victory it is not about possession, nor chances created, it is about goals. Di Mateo set up Chelsea for the only type of match they could win and Chelsea put up 2 near-perfect defensive performances. They did it with 10 men at the Camp Nou and trailing 2-0. Normally you would repudiate a team for parking the bus and playing the way they did, but under the circumstances, with Cahill injured and Terry expelled, you can only shake your head and wonder how the Catalans could have possibly let it slip away.
Without being the better side, the West Londoners managed to advance to the final and Barca have only themselves to blame. The Catalans carved up Chelsea like a Thanksgiving turkey during both legs, pounding on Petr Cech’s net throughout the 180 minutes. If this were a boxing match, Di Matteo would have thrown in the towel. The series was there to be taken, but it was just not meant to be.
3) Defensive Lapses
While Chelsea showed stalwart resiliency in defense, Barcelona made the mistake often associated with relegation bound teams: conceding just before the half. All 3 of Chelsea’s goals in this series were scored in the final 30 seconds of first or second half stoppage time. Despite controlling the match and bossing the park, Barcelona committed inexcusable turnovers just before the whistle, allowing Chelsea to catch them off-guard on the counter and head into the dressing room with hope.
4) Goal keeping
Over two legs, Chelsea had four shots on target and scored three goals. Victor Valdes recorded one save in 180 minutes of play, an easy grab on a long-range, midfield shot from Drogba that had no chance of going in. When it mattered most and the game was on the line, he let Barcelona down with his poor positioning on crosses, ill-advised decisions to come off the line and delayed responses on reaction saves. Simple put: Valdes was porous between the posts.
On the other side of the coin is Petr Cech, hero and saint of Stamford Bridge, who parried away countless efforts to instill confidence and belief in his teammates. The Chelsea shot-stopper had his share of luck with the posts, but proved that good goalkeeping can offset a team’s deficiencies and, in a game where goals are at a premium, it can win matches.
5) Guardiola’s tactics
Some questions need to be asked of Barcelona’s resident mad-genius. After fielding an underwhelming lineup against Real Madrid and losing La Liga, this latest setback is sure to provoke a firestorm in the Catalan capital, as analysts prod the Barca boss to explain what exactly he was thinking with that starting XI?
No Dani Alves to bombard down the right flank and deploying Cesc Fabregas as a wide forward? Alves leads the team in assists and is Lionel Messi’s chief partner-in-crime. Nobody sets up the Argentine more than the Brazilian and if you want to get the most out of Leo, it stands to reason that Alves must be in the game.
Fabregas has little pace. He is a link-up man, who can provide delightful chips and killer through balls to forward players. So, why put the ex-Arsenal midfielder on the wing where his skills don’t necessarily fit?
Lastly, in the biggest match of the season, why introduce a B-team player in Isaac Cuenca over an established Champions League veteran like Pedro Rodriguez. Even with his shaky form this season, the striker has the pace and experience to ignite game-changing moments.
It brings to question the insistence on a 3-4-3 formation that has been utilized the entire season. The shape allows for an extra man in midfield to maximize possession, but is detrimental to the team’s defensive stability and goal scorers. As seen against Getafe and Villarreal, it’s a configuration that can be stifled by compact defensive sides. The extra man in midfield encourages opposing teams to simply concede the center of the pitch and focus on forcing Barcelona into narrow play through the middle.
With too many cooks in the kitchen, Barcelona get easily bogged down in the final third, lacking strikers capable of finishing off the chances being created for them. It seems a system set up to get Fabregas more playing time on the pitch, rather than the formation best served for the team’s overall success.
The substitutions should also be scrutinized, since none of them really made an impact on the match. Alves for Pique was a no-brainer after the center-back walked off the field in a daze, noticeably concussed from the head-shot he received from Victor Valdes (another example of the goalie’s adverse contributions during the tie). But Christian Tello was a non-factor after replacing the underwhelming Cuenca. He could not beat Jose Bosingwa, a man renown for shaky defending, and lost possession far too easily. Seydou Keita was introduced later for Cesc Fabregas, presumably to form a defensive shield in midfield and allow Alves to push forward, but he was hardly mentioned after being brought on.
As the match wore on, Barca’s mellifluous, pass-heavy approach became more detrimental than beneficial and Pep had no plan B. As more teams learn to defend against the blaugrana’s tiki-taka pomp, Guardiola (or whoever is in charge next season) would be wise to develop a new way to unlock stubborn defenses.
6) Messi had an off night
So, he’s human after all. It would be unfair to single out Messi for the defeat, but I can’t help but feel for the little guy. Smashing a penalty off the crossbar that would have certainly sent his side through to the final has got to be a gutting experience. On a night where 95,000 fans needed him most, he failed to make the difference. His shot from outside the box that Cech turned into the post only fueled his anguish, as Barca found themselves inches short of the final.
7) Barca missed David Villa
In a match screaming for a more direct runner to unlock the Chelsea defense, his clever movement and world-class finishing were sorely missed. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that his season-ending injury was the difference for Barcelona this year. He is a man of paramount importance and in his absence the Catalans were unable to replace his goals and alleviate the enormous pressure on Lionel Messi’s shoulders. It is the principal reason why Barcelona will finish this season just short of retaining both their Spanish and European titles.
8) The fans were magnificent
In 2009, Barcelona did the impossible and defeated Chelsea with 10 men. Flash forward to 2012 and the West Londoners exacting vengeance under similar circumstances. Difference is nobody is petulantly shouting: “it’s a fucking disgrace.”
The fans were brilliant in this one. A packed house waiving Catalan flags backed the hosts with unrelenting support from opening whistle to bitter end. Even when Fernando Torres tucked away Chelsea’s second goal in the dying seconds, the stadium responded with warmth and support for the players, chanting in unison: “O le le, O la la, ser del Barça és, el millor que hi ha.”
Their devotion and loyalty know no limits, as the Catalan faithful picked up their team in its darkest hour with a showing of gratitude for everything Guardiola’s men have accomplished.
Generally in a two-egged tie the better team goes through. But you do not get points for passes completed and chances created. Style points are moot points. Goals are what matter most and Chelsea scored more during the tie. That is football.
As a purist, it feels a little wrong. But, as the saying goes, the better team does not always win. That’s why we play the game. Good fortune smiled on the Blues, who will reach the finals missing 4 starters and suffering injury blows to key defenders. It’s hard to see this decimated Chelsea side playing anything but whipping boy to Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena.
As for Barca fans, there’s always the Copa del Rey final against Bilbao to look forward to. Anims, cules. This is but a bump in the road on the path to greatness. Next year promises so much more. In the meantime, give thanks for all of the wonderful moments the team has given us this year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQxrfoEaR3A
Som I serem, Barca.
Article written by Barcaloco contributor Anson Woodring. Follow Anson on Twitter at @ansonwoodring.