Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Champions League final without Barca

The always controversial Paul Gardner writes about Chelsea's victory over Barcelona.

A couple of deja vu scenes present themselves. It's 1954 in Berne, and West Germany has just won the World Cup by beating the invincible Hungarians (well, they hadn't lost a game in four years). How could that happen? Or it's 1982 in Barcelona and Brazil, playing really beautiful soccer, has just managed to get knocked out of the World Cup by a rather pedestrian Italian team. Unthinkable. But real.
A couple of absurdly perverse results that remain in the memory primarily because of the outstanding quality of the teams that got beaten.
And here we go again. Another result that didn’t-oughta-happen, but we’re going to get Chelsea, not Barcelona, in the Champions League final. No, I’m not ecstatic about that. In almost every way, Barca is a better -- and certainly a much more entertaining -- team than Chelsea. Exactly as the Hungarians and the Brazilians were so much better than the Germans and the Italians. And grand finals ought to feature the best soccer around.
I was heavily critical of Chelsea in the first leg for playing a totally anti-soccer type game -- in its own stadium. But to play that same way in the Camp Nou, with a 1-0 lead to preserve, at least makes tactical sense, even if it does nothing for the spectacle.
But of course, Coach Roberto Di Matteo can now bask in the praise of getting things right -- for Chelsea is in the final. Whether it would also be there had the club been a good deal more enterprising in its play, we’re not going to know. Doesn’t matter. The soccer stats said caution was the way to play it, and Di Matteo went with the stats. Who can blame him for that?
The deciding factor in this game was much less Chelsea determination -- though there was plenty of that (“heroism” or “courage” as the Brit press likes to call it, terms invariably reserved for Brit teams, I can’t recall Brazilian or Argentine or German, or U.S. teams ever being heroic or courageous) -- than Barcelona incompetence. To have most of the possession and the play over two games, to be playing against 10 men for over 53 minutes, to miss a penalty kick -- and yet not be able to get the deciding goal is hardly a winning formula.
Of course, there was a good deal of bad luck for Barcelona (meaning good luck for Chelsea), but it’s worth remembering that Chelsea had its moment of bad luck in this game, losing defender Gary Cahill after only 12 minutes.
Fifteen minutes later, Chelsea suffered another huge blow, though this one was self-inflicted. What was John Terry thinking when he slammed his knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez? It was an off-the-ball foul, and Terry says it wasn’t intentional. Not believable, of course.
What seems quite likely is that Terry had forgotten that Champions League games are played with those extra officials on the goal lines. When they were first introduced, primarily to determine whether the ball had entered the goal (thereby avoiding the need for the dreaded goal-line technology), another advantage that was mentioned was that they would be able to immediately inform the referee when they spotted an infringement in or around the penalty area. That seems to be what happened here, though I must say this sort of decision has been a very long time coming -- I can’t recall it happening before.
Ironically, the goal that mattered in this game was a goal that had Lionel Messi stamped all over it, a beautifully judged chip over the goalkeeper. Alas for Barcelona, it was not Messi, but Chelsea’s Ramires who scored it. A Brazilian, not an Argentine. When Messi’s turn came, he misjudged his penalty kick -- not wildly, I don’t think Messi’s mistakes can ever be that glaring -- but by maybe eight inches, just enough for the woodwork to ricochet the ball back into play. I’ll admit to not being shocked by Messi’s miss -- somehow, throughout these two games (and El Clasico against Real Madrid at the weekend) Messi has looked a trifle jaded, lacking his usual crystal-clear sharpness.
I repeat, I’d much rather see Barcelona in the final, but based on what happened in the second game (and completely obliterating the first game from memory), I really can’t argue too much against Chelsea being there.
On a positive note, one can feel only happiness for Fernando Torres, who has been going through a miserable spell of inability to score, that he was able to maneuver himself neatly around goalkeeper Victor Valdes to score Chelsea’s second goal. A meaningless goal, as it happens -- but surely not meaningless to Torres.
That Chelsea will lose to its opponent -- whether Bayern Munich or Real Madrid -- now seems virtually certain, given that it will be missing four regulars (captain John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic), all suspended for receiving red or yellow cards.
The cloud that hangs over Chelsea now is that Di Matteo might well feel that a further dose of the ultra-defensive play that got the team past the formidable Barcelona might well be the best way to play the final. Or maybe, given the four absentees, the only way. Which is not a good recipe for a sparkling final, a showcase game.

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