By Trevor Haylett at Camp Nou
It seemed that the gods were on the side of Chelsea FC. A glorious winter's day in Catalonia beneath a clear blue sky – Chelsea blue – was a perfect starting point for this most captivating of European challenges.
It had been billed as the ultimate test for José Mourinho's men. Not only was their collective ability about to come under the fiercest scrutiny but facing FC Barcelona in their own backyard would answer questions about their resilience and mental resolve as well.
The defeat at Newcastle United FC three days before in the FA Cup was not merely a rare loss but one that caused them to wonder if the fates were turning against them, so severe were the injuries they picked up. They were serious enough to put Wayne Bridge on a stretcher and out for the season and also to leave Damien Duff a likely bystander for this meeting between the leading powers of the English and Spanish leagues.
That then was the first surprise of the evening, to find Duff included on the team-sheet when Mourinho had virtually ruled him out 24 hours before. The second was to see the visitors being negligent on the ball early on – not with worrying regularity but enough to wonder if this attempt to assert English supremacy had induced more than the odd shiver of nervousness in their ranks.
Claude Makelele and Frank Lampard do not make a habit of donating possession to the opposition and as Chelsea struggled to settle into the contest so Barcelona sensed their opportunity to take advantage. Their ball manipulation and easy movement was similar to the way Real Madrid CF had at times toyed with Juventus FC the previous night.
Gallas under pressure
It was an irrepressible sight as Juliano Belletti bombed down the right, providing an overlapping foil to Ludovic Giuly who was eager to gain ascendancy over his compatriot William Gallas. With Bridge missing, Gallas will have to fill Chelsea's left-back position on a permanent basis so Ricardo Carvalho's return from a broken toe was timely indeed.
Yet the central defender, a star for Portugal at UEFA EURO 2004™ and for FC Porto as they took possession of this trophy last May, was struggling to shine when faced with the Barcelona artists here. His rustiness was apparent as he was dumped on his backside by a wondrous turn from Samuel Eto'o and soon after as he and John Terry collided when going for the same ball.
Yet those first impressions then looked to be misleading. From the midway point of the first half Chelsea's tentativeness gave way to something more solid and significant. Terry and Carvalho grew successful in closing the central areas that Eto'o and Ronaldinho had looked likely to exploit and Lampard’s distribution was back on the button: what a pass he made to set up Duff for the run that enticed Belletti's own goal. Thus Chelsea ended the half in front.
Didier Drogba's dismissal granted Barcelona a second wind. They came again and again in waves of attacking intent. Terry marshalled his troops effectively and Petr Cech was another formidable barrier for the hosts to overcome.
López turns tide
Then the arrival of Maxi López gave the home team an added impetus when they were already bossing possession and Carvalho would stumble one more time, and with disastrous results. So it's advantage Barcelona – just – and all to play for in London on 8 March.
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