Chelsea's class of 2012 turn tables on Barcelona
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Having watched Chelsea FC defeat FC Barcelona last night, Graham Hunter expects another exhilarating encounter when the teams reconvene at the Camp Nou next Tuesday.
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The same clubs, the same venue and the same stage of the competition as their epic UEFA Champions League semi-final three years ago – but this was an utterly different contest between Chelsea FC and FC Barcelona.
Two rivals brilliantly briefed by their coaches led to a match so finely balanced that the tiniest slip, such as Lionel Messi being robbed by Frank Lampard high up the pitch to begin the move for Didier Drogba's goal, could prove devastating.
There were key differences from 2009. Back then, Guus Hiddink's Chelsea dominated but missed presentable chances; this time it was the reigning champions who fluffed their lines when the stage was set for a goal, having found the difficult part – slicing open Chelsea's defence – unexpectedly easy.
The second notable change was that Chelsea never once worked less hard, or concentrated with less intensity, than Josep Guardiola's relentlessly constructive side. The job which Roberto Di Matteo has done on the general confidence and work-rate of his charges in little over six weeks since taking over is impressive. Not at any stage did Chelsea look nervous, nor did there seem any sort of hangover from their painful away-goals defeat at the hands of these opponents in 2009.
This was a classic European contest; two teams from different countries with opposing concepts of how to play, testing themselves to the limit. It was notable that, on the occasions when the players were in dispute, they did so with tolerant smiles on their faces. This was a match played in a spirit of wary respect.
That pleasing tendency, following one of the most fiercely-contested contests in recent history last time out when Andrés Iniesta's late rocket broke Chelsea hearts, was capped on the final whistle. There was a warm, sincere and lingering handshake with a sotto voce conversation between Di Matteo and Guardiola.
Neutrals would like to imagine the chat went something along the lines of: "Let's play the second leg in that spirit, with that much intensity and attacking intent and may the better side win… OK?" when the Swiss-Italian gracefully accepted the Catalan's congratulations.
And if there is anything as sweet for Chelsea as shaking that Iniesta stone out of their shoes then perhaps it is the fact that by the end it was not Barcelona's increasingly eccentric finishing alone which kept the scoreline in their favour as they look to reach the Munich final on 19 May.
Sergio Busquets did thrash an opportunity over the bar in the last seconds but moments earlier Petr Čech had produced a save which epitomised athletic elegance and demonstrated his returning confidence as he turned Carles Puyol's subtle flick-on around the post.
Chelsea won because they earned it. The intriguingly narrow scoreline, and the ongoing battle of styles, promises so much more at the Camp Nou next Tuesday.