Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Barcelona v Chelsea, Champions League, 28 April

The Game

There was pre-match talk of a goalfest or something similar, but in the end Chelsea replayed Manchester United’s game at the Nou Camp at the same stage last year. Just replaced the kits, changed player names and then set the tactics to “same as last year Barca V MU semi-final”. Wish they got that feature in FIFA Manager.

Essien on the right side of midfield signaled lack of width for Chelsea even before the game kicked off. Their occupation of the pitch confirmed that they would lack width, breadth, length and any dimension needed to really get a game of football going. Goalkeeper plus nine were to be found on a patch of the field no broader than thirty yards and it was less of a game and more of a complicated training drill in which Barca failed to meet the objective.

If Chelsea were ever going to score it would have had to be from a long ball, a set piece or a defensive error and Marquez presented them with one when he handed the ball over to Drogba, who should have scored but was prevented well (twice) by Valdes. Then there was a second half corner which found an unmarked Ballack who used to put them all in, once upon a time. This time he headed over. That was about it from Chelsea.

Barcelona were as good as they needed to be as a team but were let down by some key individuals – Messi and Eto to be precise. Bosingwa was Messi’s marker on the left and there was a whole battalion of Chelsea players on him whenever he went central, but it wasn’t simply the tight marking that was behind Lionel’s poor show. He seemed to lack focus and made too many bad decisions and lost possession far too easily. Maybe he was ill. It’s hard to think of an explanation and while I have seen games where his involvement has been low, I can’t recollect another where it has been poor.

Eto failed to convert the one big chance he had (a combination of Alex and Terry errors presented him with a clear run on goal) and was otherwise completely out-bullied by Chelsea’s defense. Henry was better than the pair of them, but even he was hardly having his best night. A couple of shots on target and a dangerous moment when he should (or could) have won a penalty for being hauled down in the box.

The rest of the lot was almost as good as they are on any other day. Xavi, Abidal and Alves looked completely at ease while Iniesta had a delightful first half. Toure, Marquez and Piquet not only never allowed Drogba to win a Cech long goal kick, they also consistently rid the Chelsea midfield of the ball on the few occasions that the Blues did try and string a move together.

For Chelsea, it was hardly a case of rating one player over the other as they came with a specific purpose as a unit and achieved it as a unit. Still, amidst all the discipline and efficiency, it was difficult not to note the struggle that Essien is having with his passing game. On a positive note, Petr Cech pulled off some great saves and after that penalty save against West Ham, he is looking as assured as a shot stopper as he was at his peak. There’s still some way to go before we can say that about his command of the area, but one hopes that this performance will provide an overall confidence boost to one of those rare goalkeepers who makes his job look very exciting indeed.

A not to forget moment – Frank Lampard getting substituted. That’s a rare one.

To dismiss the game as a non-spectacle would be harsh though it definitely was more interesting than it was exciting. Yet, there were plenty of critical moments which could have changed the score board and turned this into a well-loved 2-2 instead of a boring 0-0. Drogba, Ballack and Eto have been mentioned before but there were also Hleb (who should have done better) and Bojan (who should have scored… period). Defensive mistakes, which have been consistently followed by some superb finishing in the last few weeks, were forgiven time and again and the set-piece boots were all forgotten at home. Piquet found some good passes into the box and on another day Alves would have trapped one and secured a Bergkamp‘esk’ finish. Some days however, are not just for goals.

Chelsea came in with a plan and as far as the result goes, it seems to have worked, if not completely then quite significantly. But I’m sure they’ll realize that their own endeavors had as much to do with the result as the inexplicable loss of form to two of the world’s most dangerous players.

The After Game

As I expected to when I switched off the television set last night, I have woken up to a day where Chelsea have been praised and ridiculed for their approach and where inevitably the talents of Messi on the big stage have been questioned. Also on expected lines, there’s not a word about the penalty kick that Henry may have earned and the fact that for all their talk of superiority, even the best English teams have a single game plan for containing Barca (but they succeed everytime dammit).

As it stands, it is of course a double edged sword for Chelsea. They could hope to face a team of fragile minds next week (especially if Real manage to cause more torment on the weekend) and yet a single Barca goal could do so much more damage at the Bridge than it would have had at Nou Camp. That is why I had expected Chelsea to attack a little more in the second half but it did not happen.

For Barca, apart from the headache of filling in the central defensive gap (created by the injury to Marquez and the suspension of Puyol) will be the challenge of keeping themselves fresh and fit and getting their most important players in the correct state of mind when they reach London. That done, they will always be a team capable of beating anyone anywhere.

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