Boring Barca up the wrong tree
Three defeats in a row – albeit one of them on aggregate – probably doesn’t translate into Catalan. The concept is as alien in northern Spain as the bizarre works of the architect Gaudi are to the rest of us. This morning, the usually lively Spanish seaport will be in mourning as questions are asked regarding the invincibility of a style of play that had, until last night, dazzled world football.
In a match in turns absurd and thrilling, the great game tilted on its axis as silky ball skills and patience lost out to steely will and a downright refusal to capitulate. It was the Spanish bull attacking a wounded and tethered British lion that simply refused to lie down and die.
The early evening TV reports showed Chelsea supporters soaking up the sangria and atmosphere in a good mood but the usual bombast of fans taking a 1-0 lead into a second leg was missing as the reality of facing Messi and Co at Camp Nou came ever closer.
To The Secret Fan, this was one of those magical floodlit European football nights that a big telly was made for. Sound turned up, beers in a line, phone on silent and missus in attendance – for insightful comment. Game on. The first ten minutes see Chelsea pressed back to their 18-yard box as Barca take up their usual cat-stalking-a-mouse stance.
They then suffer the early departure of Gary Cahill and their first impromptu midfield shuffle. Apart from the occasional respite of a foray towards the halfway line, the Blue half were looking unconvincing and nervous, almost as though it would be a relief to have the dam break.
It is hard to determine whether Chelsea are content to watch the stripes play as if on rails, don’t want to be made to look silly with an ineffective challenge or they really can’t win the ball back. By their inability to break free from their own half, they are merely contributors to the inevitable and it happened on 35 minutes as Isaac Cuenca squared the ball towards a phalanx of Barca forwards and Sergio Busquets supplied the finish.
If English hearts were broken by the thought of the onslaught to come, they were firmly trod underfoot with the dismissal of John Terry two minutes later. Terry has what my wife calls an “unfortunate” face. She reckons he lacks gorm and, indeed, the replay showed a foul so completely gormless as to make one question the man’s intelligence. His failure to understand that, in front of almost 100,000 people and the crosshairs of a thousand TV cameras, there is no hiding place for the incompetent.
Five minutes later, Barcelona were ahead in the tie as Lionel Messi’s through ball found Andres Iniesta, who made the resulting goal look deceptively easy. So, game over, and only a matter of how many the home side would care to score in the second half!
However, with the overconfidence of 11 verses ten, Barca have become so committed to laying siege to Petr Cech that they have forgotten to make any provision regarding defence. Cometh the 46th minute, cometh the man, as Barca finally relent and let Chelsea have a go. The tireless Frank Lampard passes from defence to send Ramires sprinting towards Victor Valdes, who can only admire the exquisite lob as it sails goalbound over his head. Against the run of, well everything, Chelsea are winning on the away goals rule.
I try to catch my breath as the half-time entertainment starts at “Chez Fan”. My wife wants to know why Gary Lineker is absent from the half-time pundits and this leads to a long ramble on the ubiquity of TV celebs. “Oh, it does annoy me when they start off with a nice little slot on “Countryfile” or “Antiques Roadshow” and, within weeks, you can’t get them off the telly,” she ponders.
“You have John Sergeant doing a programme about old steamships colliding with Julia Bradbury on some forlorn railway station in the Hebrides as Michael Portillo turns up with his film crew to do a piece on the slave trade and its place in the history of art.”
“Yes, yes, love, I agree, but the second half is about to start and I need a pee and a fresh bottle.” I love her, of course, and remind myself to tell her, just as soon as the match is over.
The second half begins and continues for 46 minutes with Chelsea’s ten men firmly behind the ball. The Boys in the Studio now start to ramp-up the Lionheart aspect of Chelsea’s situation, merely hedging bets at this stage. Barca’s tireless attempts at threading and weaving are quickly becoming tiresome as it becomes apparent that they have no Plan B.
Finally, Cesc Fabrigas, who surprisingly has been a weak link in both legs, is brought down by Didier Drogba for a penalty. Messi – “Doesn’t even look like a footballer,” says the wife – steps forward and beats Cech and … hits the crossbar. “There, I told you so.”
The studio pundits go into overdrive and I fully expect a Churchillian quote as Barca are repeatedly foiled and repelled. Messi again hits the goal frame but it is obvious their walk-the-ball-in approach is a failure and, without a target man, their few crosses are easily cut out. The Catalans have run out of ideas and don’t deserve to win.
In the 80th minute, the enormous presence of Drogba leaves the field, head high. He has done an incredible job, at one time breaking from defensive duties to have an audacious shot from the halfway line. He is replaced by Fernando Torres and the whole event is about to turn into a legend that even Hollywood would dismiss as over the top.
On 92 minutes, and as Barcelona once more unsuccessfully tried to find a way through the Chelsea ranks, the ball looped high and fell to Torres near the halfway line. Time for the Spaniard to, once again, fluff his lines? Will he stumble or miss? Neither. He rounds Valdes and puts the game out of sight and Chelsea into the final. “£50 million repaid,” they are saying in the studio!
For the Chelsea fans, a magical night; for the rest of us, with the Euros in sight, a chance to believe that the Brits can take on the best and beat them.
Just an afterthought: wouldn’t it be a good idea to balance the sycophantic grovelling of the studio pundits with a selection of supporters from rival clubs?