Thursday, May 7, 2009

Chelsea v Barcelona, May 6, Champions League

Chelsea paid the price for not taking their chances when they got them and a painfully late 94th minute equalizer from Andres Iniesta meant that Barcelona have sealed their date against Manchester United in Rome. There is talk of tactics and strategy, but in the end the only fact that separated the two teams was the away goal. For all Chelsea’s defensiveness they created enough to have won it over two legs. For all Barcelona’s lack of shots on target in the second –leg, they managed to score the goal that mattered and the rest are just split hairs.

The second leg mirrored the first in many aspects and yet had significant differences. The most significant being a 9th minute goal scored out of nothing from a Michael Essien left footed wonder strike. Chelsea may have not had too many attacking thoughts even at nil-nil, but the goal gave them an added incentive to defend in numbers. Before the goal and after it, Barcelona kept possession in much the same way as they had done in the first leg. They also made as little use of it at Stamford Bridge as they had done at the Nou Camp.

From there on till the end, the game was mildly more entertaining than last week’s encounter with more occasions for drama and controversy, though with rather little new in terms of spectacular play. Especially poor was Dani Alves, whose crosses throughout the evening would have been better collected in the neighboring field. Eto was no more visible than n the first leg and Messi just marginally better. Busquet, Keita and Xavi looked like a pale shadow of Xavi, Iniesta and Toure, though Chelsea were so far back that the midfield depletion didn’t really hurt Barca. Iniesta stood out as the only Barca player who looked capable of doing damage, but not really in the manner in which he eventually did.

Chelsea’s single solution for creating attacking positions was to seek out Drogba, and he did do a spectacular job in making life difficult for Barcelona many times through the evening. Yet, he failed to score from a chance not too dissimilar to the one he had at the Nou Camp and in that failure, condemned his team to defeat.

Barca should have conceded a penalty or two and were fortunate, but so had Chelsea been when Henry was denied a penalty and Ballack not dished out a red card. The ref stank the whole night through and yet somehow it is difficult to pin the result to him. Chelsea could have scored more and should have been composed enough till the end, not to concede against ten men. Barcelona kept going for it, even after they lost Abidal and were fortunate enough to get the rewards. Had Iniesta shot wide, Barca would have had only their inability to break down a very resolute and well organized defense to blame.

I would have loved if Barcelona had squared off against Arsenal while Manchester United had taken on Chelsea. It probably would have made for better viewing across all the four games and even though the finalists may have turned out to be the same, there would not have been so much unsettlable debate between beautiful and defensive football and the moral rights to a final.

As it is, Barcelona have got there and will have the right to play, moral or immoral. How well they can cope against Manchester United will be seen on the day, but they will know that their superiority in the Liga will mean nothing against the defending Champions. Especially fragile is the look of their defense and Manchester United can play the counter attacking game even better than Chelsea so Barcelona will struggle to keep a clean sheet. The destination of the trophy will be their ability to do significantly better against resolute defending and in that respect, the Chelsea game could prove to be a huge learning experience for them.

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