Posted by Phil Lythell
The last week of following Chelsea has been like stepping into a time machine. The resolve and resilience displayed in the matches against Barcelona and Arsenal has borne more than a passing resemblance to the character of those sides sent on to the field by Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink.
The 1-0 win over the reigning European Champions was as familiar as it was unexpected though the build up to the match was strange for such a huge fixture in that there were very few nerves among Chelsea fans around the stadium. Having been universally written off and with nothing to lose, most were just hoping for a good effort and to still be in the tie going into the second leg; a draw would have been gladly accepted prior to kick-off.
The match may have followed the pattern that we all predicted – Barca dominating possession and Chelsea camped around the edge of the penalty box – but with one unforeseen detail: the lack of cutting edge from Pep Guardiola’s team. Quite how Cesc Fabregas did not get on the scoresheet is beyond me while Alexis Sanchez could quite easily have netted twice. But while gilt-edged chances were missed – the loveable Sergio Busquets even firing over an open goal in injury-time – the most telling eventuality is that none of those openings fell to Lionel Messi.
With his supernatural abilities well known to those inside Stamford Bridge, the little magician drew a gasp from the crowd every time he was on the ball but he was reduced to shooting from distance and was crowded out each time by stoic defending from the men in blue. Had Messi found himself in the same areas as Fabregas and Sanchez, there is no doubt that the net would have bulged on at least one occasion.
However, the credit for restricting the world’s best footballer to a role on the periphery of the game has to go to the incredible display of positional discipline from the home side, the foundation of Roberto Di Matteo’s gameplan and a nod to previous years under former regimes. Gary Cahill truly came of age as a Chelsea player with an almost flawless performance while John Terry and Ashley Cole showed the very best of their qualities in repelling everything thrown at them. In front of the back four, John Obi Mikel was resolute, Raul Meireles terrier-like and Frank Lampard a picture of composure whether on or off the ball. Indeed, Lampard’s dispossession of Messi and his inch-perfect pass to Ramires was the key to the match-winning goal.
That strike from Didier Drogba may have ultimately been the crucial difference between the sides after ninety plus minutes but it was only one of the key contributions from the big man. He disrupted Barcelona’s rhythm all night whether he was winning long balls or milking the moment after every challenge from an opposition player, proving once again that there is no better centre forward in world football when he is at the top of his game. Carles Puyol is as indomitable a defender that there is in the game but he was totally outmuscled by Drogba every time the two contested for the ball while Javier Mascherano was absolutely pulverised when he ventured into the striker’s path. His ability to win and then hold possession to relieve the pressure on an exhausted defence was vital to the result and let’s pray that he gets over his knee injury to start at Camp Nou in the return leg.
Drogba’s intimidating physicality is totally at odds with his propensity to hit the deck at the merest touch and to stay there as if picked off by a sniper rifle. Naturally it has drawn much criticism and usually I would be among the first in the queue. This time, however, I have nothing but praise for his actions. Drogba’s theatrics were not designed to earn yellow cards for the opposition but merely to give the defence and midfield a breather between waves of attack. His antics will have been greatly appreciated by those playing behind him. Secondly – and I realise this is as subjective as it gets – the rules of ethics are suspended against Barcelona. Chelsea have been on the wrong end of so much gamesmanship form the Catalans in previous encounters that, quite frankly, they got what they deserved. Even the most anti-Drogba observer must have had a wry smile on their face at the sight of the most odious cheat of them all, Sergio Busquets, accusing the Ivorian of diving. People say that if you play Barcelona at their own game you can only lose but Drogba’s “professionalism” highlighted that there is a caveat to that particular pearl of wisdom.
In many aspects this meeting very much mirrored the last one between the two clubs in 2009 though for a few crucial differences. The bounce of the ball this time favoured the Blues and the referee - while not awarding any penalties – seemed more disposed to whistle in defence of Drogba than Tom Henning Ovrebo did three years ago. Yet the result could well have been the same except instead of Andres Iniesta firing the ball into the roof of the net, Thiago Alcantara hit a post with his injury time effort and the follow up was blazed over. Was it destiny or merely delaying the inevitable? Either way, the jigging in the stands to One Step Beyond at the final whistle felt like a dance of redemption.
Following the exertions of Wednesday night, Saturday’s trip to Arsenal looked like another daunting challenge but once again the Blues performed above expectations. The defence was rock solid and had the front three not had such a poor game a valuable three points might well have been the reward for Roberto Di Matteo and his team rather than just one. Daniel Sturridge never quite got into the game while Fernando Torres scurried around but to little effect. However, Salomon Kalou, as always, frustrated the most. If his play on the ball was half as good as his movement without it then he would be one of the most prized footballers around. Unfortunately, his appalling decision making and dreadful execution in key areas means he is destined to bear the brunt of criticism of the crowd more often than their acclaim.
Terry and Cahill were magnificent at the back once again but a special mention has to go to Ryan Bertrand. The left back kept Theo Walcott quiet all afternoon and was always available on the overlap in attacking situations. His game is cut from the same cloth as Ashley Cole’s and it is encouraging to see a player capable of stepping into the England international’s shoes both in the short and long term. If only the same could be said of Jose Bosingwa.
Together with the 5-1 demolition of Tottenham at Wembley, it has been a very satisfying seven days for Chelsea Football Club but there is no time to rest on any laurels. With the faint glow of a Champions League final on the horizon, Tuesday’s match at Camp Nou will be fraught to say the least and I don’t think I’m being too defeatist in saying that Chelsea are still firm outsiders to make it to Munich. Tottenham’s defeat to QPR has been a fillip in the pursuit of a fourth place finish in the Premier League but we face their conquerors next weekend in what is bound to be a contentious affair in light of the incident between Terry and Anton Ferdinand in the first meeting this season at Loftus Road. Meanwhile, Newcastle’s string of victories has seen them pull four points clear of the Blues so a win over the Magpies a week on Wednesday is a must.
The big matches are coming thick and fast for Chelsea but so far so good. Another positive result on Tuesday night and the impossible might just become a reality
You can read more of Phil's opinions at ShoutyAndSpitty.com or on Twitter @PhilLythell