"Sometimes you see beautiful people with no brains," Chelsea FC manager José Mourinho mused when questioned about the state of the Stamford Bridge pitch prior to kick-off against FC Barcelona. "And sometimes you have ugly people who are intelligent, like scientists. Our pitch is a bit like that." They proved prophetic words as substance triumphed over style for much of last night's last 16 first leg before the most stylish of them all, Ronaldinho, inspired a thrilling finale.
The Brazilian playmaker waltzed through Barça's pre-match warm-up routine. While his team-mates leapt, swivelled and sprinted in one fluorescent yellow wall, Ronaldinho stalked their well-drilled fringes, ball at his feet, failing to break out of a plodding jog as he dribbled from one touchline to the other. When the visitors ran back towards the tunnel to make their last-minute preparations, the 25-year-old remained, joyfully lobbing passes into a battalion of ball boys who had gravitated behind the goal.
He began the game in a similar vein, familiarising himself with the muddy turf on the left wing before ambling into midfield to announce his presence with a nonchalant back-heel. He was further upfield moments later but Lionel Messi's searching ball was spectacularly cut out by a lunging defensive volley from Ricardo Carvalho, a moment which set the tone for the first half. The away team's build-up play was impressive, but Chelsea regularly snuffed out any hint of real danger.
Del Horno dismissal
Little of Barcelona's first-half impetus came from Ronaldinho; it was the precocious Argentinian Messi who caused most trouble, eventually drawing a challenge from Asier Del Horno that caused the Premiership side to be reduced to ten men and facing an uphill battle. But Chelsea kept their shape with Geremi slotting seamlessly into defence, and Thiago Motta's own goal just before the hour pointed to a win against the odds for the hosts.
It was also Ronaldinho's cue. Anonymous for so long, he sprang into life and it was his arcing free-kick that John Terry glanced beyond Petr Čech for the equaliser. The chink in their armour uncovered, Chelsea's defensive order became disorder in a frenetic last 20 minutes. The goal frame was rattled and goalline clearances were made before Samuel Eto'o headed the winner. It was a stunning turnaround, all stemming from the boot of the irrepressible Ronaldinho.
Such had been his lack of influence until then that the Chelsea fans had launched into chants of "who are you?" before half-time, yet these he answered with aplomb. Mourinho's team should not be too disheartened, however. Eto'o also scored the winner when the sides met at the same stage last season. On that night Chelsea saw their lead, which had come courtesy of an own goal, become a deficit in the final 23 minutes, and were forced to play a significant part of the game with ten men. Defensive heroics kept them within touching distance, and a 4-2 victory in the second leg meant a 5-4 aggregate triumph.
The difference, of course, is that in that tie they started at Camp Nou before rising from the ashes in their west London home. Chelsea will not be able to count on home advantage for the return this time and also know they must score at least twice. But if Mourinho's men can conjure up intelligence and beauty as Barça did for 30 minutes last night, Chelsea will feel they have every chance.
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