There’s a great phrase in football which suggests that “your name’s on the Cup.” In essence, no matter how inferior you may be compared to the opposition, the Gods will look down upon you and ensure that you make safe passage en route to ultimately lifting a trophy.
Anyone who witnessed Chelsea’s miraculous – and miraculous is the only fitting description – victory over Barcelona in the two legged semi-final of the Champions League will attest that their name is indeed on the cup.
Where to begin? The Londoners entered Camp Nou holding onto a slender 1-0 first-leg lead given to them by their Ivorian talisman Didier Drogba. Chelsea had somehow won the game, despite only having one shot on target, and ceding a staggering 72% of possession to a team many have already anointed the greatest club side in history.
But for those of us who believed that Barca would simply roll Chelsea over in the second leg and restore some much needed order to the footballing universe, there were some worrying signs. On the back of the Champions League defeat, the Catalans proceeded to lose “El Clasico” 2-1 at home to Real Madrid (their first such defeat of the season), which effectively handed the league title to their deadly rivals. Come kick off on Tuesday, there could be no room for complacency.
And yet the tempo was set from the whistle with Chelsea audaciously going on the attack, trying to make inroads into Barca’s back three of Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano. The Blues knew all too well how precious an away goal would be, effectively counting double, meaning that Barca would have to win the second leg by two goals to progress. Unfortunately for the away side, that plan was soon dealt a blow by their center-halves exiting the game for entirely different reasons.
First, Gary Cahill, who defended so heroically in the first game, pulled his hamstring and had to be substituted with barely 10 of the 90 minutes completed. And then later in the first half, captain John Terry was shown a straight red card for needlessly kneeing Alexis Sánchez in the back. For any player to pull such a reckless move would be unforgivable – but when it’s the captain, the magnitude of the idiocy cannot be overstated.
Hilariously, in the aftermath, Terry tried to plead his innocence (he would later apologize for his actions) but, just as bad for his teammates, when he trudged off the pitch, Chelsea was already a goal behind, meaning the aggregate scores were level thanks to Sergio Busquets’ calm left-footed finish (and for the second Barca game in a row, you’d have got huge odds on the first goalscorer market).
Game on and very much back in Barca’s favor. It soon got better, with the hastily reshaped Chelsea back four – Jose Bosingwa in central defence! – unable to stop Lionel Messi, who had offered brief glimpses of his sumptuous talent, playing in Andres Iniesta, who gave Barca their first lead of the entire tie. 2-0 down and one man down: This was surely Mission Impossible for a team living up (or rather down) to their nickname of the Blues.
But back Chelsea came, suddenly showing some of the famed resilience English clubs have been known to summon. New captain Frank Lampard was once again responsible for the build up to the goal, as his cute through ball in first half extra time gave Ramires the chance to trouble goalkeeper Victor Valdes. The Brazilian only required one touch, and his lob was placed to perfection, stunning everyone inside Camp Nou (and we’re including Chelsea’s players, staff and supporters). Though still behind on the night, the aggregate scores were now level at 2-2, meaning that if the scores remained the same, Chelsea would go through on away goals.
As the watching world recovered its collective breath during the half-time interval, the restart would provide instant drama, as Drogba was adjusted to have fouled Cesc Fabregas in the penalty box (even though replays showed it was a harsh decision, one of the golden rules of football is never have your strikers tackling back in the box). Up stepped Messi to surely restore Barca’s two goal lead. But wait: did the fact that he’s never scored against Chelsea in eight games play on his mind as he waited to strike the penalty? We’ll never know but Messi proved that perhaps he is mortal by hitting the bar. The footballing Gods were beginning to look down.
From here on in, Chelsea once again defended as if their lives depended on it. Barca seemed to almost forgo their traditional formation, opting for a 1-9 (the poor 1 being Mascherano staying deep), getting off shot after shot. But their efforts were either blocked, went into the stands or, when they were on target, came up against a goalkeeper in Petr Cech, who simply wouldn’t concede (his fingertip save onto the post from a curiously quiet Messi being a standout moment). And as time was running out, one final twist: beleaguered substitute, the Spaniard Fernando Torres found himself all alone, rounded Valdes with ease and scored what would become known as the £50 million goal (a jibe at his hefty transfer fee from Liverpool). The final whistle blew, with a remarkable match ending 2-2 on the night, 2-3 to Chelsea on aggregate.
The day after the night before brought some stark issues into light. Chelsea will be without four suspended players for the final against Bayern Munich, which fortunately for the German side, happens to be in Munich next month: Ramires, midfielder Raul Meireles, defender Branislav Ivanovic and, of course, Terry, who would have been hoping for a shot at redemption after missing what would have been the decisive penalty kick in the 2008 Champions League final against Manchester United. As for Barca, perhaps they’ll need to rebuild, with Messi out of sorts recently and manager Pep Guardiola weary and irritable. The talk in football is that he has no Plan B when it comes to breaking down stubborn sides.
By contrast, his Chelsea counterpart, Roberto Di Matteo, is in dreamland: he’s only the caretaker manager because Andre Villas-Boas was deemed a failure after a matter of months by Chelsea’s impatient owner Roman Abramovich (and he lost the senior players, a fatal blow at almost every level of the game). Those in the know believe the Russian already had a permanent replacement in mind for the man known as AVB. But if RDM can deliver the trophy his boss covets unlike any other, he’ll surely be able to write his own contract.