(Champions League semi-final, 2ndleg, Tuesday 24 April 2012)
Many Chelsea fans would have woken up on Wednesday morning thinking that what they’d witnessed the previous evening hadn’t really taken place. A fantasy. It couldn’t and shouldn’t have happened. But happen it did. It was real.
How it happened remains a mystery. It defies belief. Teams lose when they go two-down away to Barcelona, rightly accepted as the greatest football team on earth. And when you go two-down and a man down, and when your defence has a patched up look, with players out of position, you get battered. Annihilated. Hit for six. Or more.
Chelsea should have capitulated. They should have accepted the inevitability of defeat and simply surrendered. After all, they were playing a team that had already scored 102 goals at the Nou Camp this season.
But, somehow or other, logic and the natural order of football didn’t apply at the Nou Camp on Tuesday. Common sense was turned on its head. Something astonishing happened. Chelsea didn’t fold. They didn’t fall apart. They fought back. They triumphed.
By defying all the odds, by refusing to be cowed, by dethroning the kings of European football, the world’s best team, Chelsea joined the ranks of European greats. This was, quite simply, a night that will go down in history as Chelsea’s finest ever, their most remarkable, extraordinary and astonishing result.
It looked ominous for Chelsea after only 12 minutes, when Gary Cahill hobbled off with a hamstring injury, forcing the first reshuffling of their defence, with Branislav Ivanovich moving to centre half and Jose Bosingwa coming on at right back. Chelsea struggled on, but weathered the storm.
Then within eight horrendous minutes towards the end of the first half it looked like the Blues had blown it. Busquets scored on 35 minutes to level the tie at 1-1. John Terry then needlessly drove his knee into Sanchez’s back, resulting in an instant sending off. And on 43 minutes Iniesta put Barcelona 2-0 up on the night, and 2-1 ahead on aggregate. Chelsea seemed down and out, and destined for a drubbing. It looked like game over.
Cue more reshuffling, with Bosingwa moving into the centre of defence and Ramires playing as an emergency right back. And then came the resurgence. Somehow, as the first half drew to a close, Ramires managed to race forward and on to the end of superb through-ball from Frank Lampard. Chelsea knew they’d get few opportunities to score, and Ramires didn’t waste this one, neatly chipping the ball over Valdes and into the net.
This not only drew the aggregate score level at 2-2 but gave Chelsea a vital away goal. But it seemed to count for nothing when Barcelona were awarded a penalty barely two minutes into the second half. Up strode Lionel Messi, only for the ball to strike the bar. The world’s greatest player has now failed to score in eight games against Chelsea.
But surely Chelsea, now against the ropes and being battered by Barcelona, couldn’t keep the Catalans out for another 43 minutes? Surely they couldn’t survive that long.
That they did was remarkable, and was due to nothing less than hard graft, intense concentration and heroic, never-say-die spirit. They ran. They chased. They tackled. They harried.
Substitute striker Salomon Kalou played alongside Ramires as a second right-back; Didier Drogba, and later Fernando Torres, played at left-back, doubling up with Ashley Cole. And in front of these six deep defenders Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles provided a second line of stout, resolute defence.
As the clocked ticked down, and Chelsea continued to keep Barcelona at bay, the home team seemed to run out of both energy and ideas. Then, as the game entered added time, and with Barca throwing everyone forward, the ball was hoofed away and Torres found he had the whole Barcelona half to himself with just Valdes in front of him. With the home crowd silent in fear he rounded the keeper and slotted the ball home to level the score and seal the tie.
Roberto Di Matteo had said that his side would need two ‘perfect performances’ to overcome Barcelona. In the end, he got more. It was no accident that Barca had two bad nights against Chelsea. They had them because the Blues didn’t let them play the way they wanted.
Take a bow, Chelsea.
By Nick Sheppard