OK, let’s just get this out of the way at the beginning, in the interest of full disclosure. I’m a huge Chelsea fan. I have been for years. When the final whistle blew today and the Blues advanced to the Champions League final, I was ecstatic.
But even if you’re not a Chelsea fan — or even a fan of soccer in general — the underdog story of the aggregate victory over vaunted Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Champions League semifinal is one to relish.
To understand why it was such an improbable, unbelievable victory for the English side, you must understand just how good Barcelona is. They have the best soccer player in the world — no one argues that. Lionel Messi, in fact, is probably the best soccer player in the history of the game. And his team is undeniably the best club in the world. And yet they lost.
Messi & co. had their chances.
In the 37th minute, Chelsea captain and prime defenseman John Terry was sent off with a red card, leaving the Blues with only 10 men for the next 53 minutes. (This may have actually been a blessing in disguise, as James Tyler points out at ESPN.com — because it allowed Chelsea to play zone defense instead of trying to mark Barca’s slippery strikers man-to-man.)
In the 59th minute with the score 2-1 to Barcelona, Chelsea striker Didier Drogba — who played as unselfishly as ever — pulled down Andres Iniesta in the penalty area and Barca were awarded a penalty kick. Messi, the
brilliant striker who nets more than 75 percent of his penalty chances, took his usual half-second pause and proceeded to fire the ball off the crossbar and back into play.
In the 82nd minute, Alexis Sanchez slipped a right-footed shot past Chelsea keeper Petr Cech, but the goal was disallowed for offside. A minute later, Messi again had the chance to drill home a winner, but Cech got two fingertips on the ball and deflected it off of the post.
Chelsea’s tactics in the first half may not have been pretty — they defended their half like a rabid dog defends a bone. But once the game opened up shortly before the halftime whistle, the two sides sought chances with equal abandon.
As much as the pressure will be placed squarely on Messi’s shoulders — and rightly so after his failure to score in recent games and his utterly terrible record against Chelsea all-time — the story of this game will be about the two coaches.
Both of these men — Barca’s Pep Guardiola and Chelsea’s “caretaker” manager Roberto di Matteo — are a mere 41 years old.
In January, Guardioala won the FIFA World Coach of the Year award. He is unquestionably one of the top few managers in the world and encourages his players to run swiftly and pass often — a style of play that has come to be known as “tiki-taka” that more resembles a samba dance than an athletic tactic. But on Tuesday evening at Camp Nou, he watched somberly as Fernando Torres — a Spanish golden boy himself — took a long clearance, cleanly evaded Victor Valdes’ challenge, and firmly netted the final goal and the final nail in Barca’s coffin.
Meanwhile, on the other sideline, “RDM” couldn’t contain his emotion. A mere seven weeks after he replaced Andre Villas-Boas (“AVB”) as manager of the West London club, he has taken the Blues to the final of the FA Cup and the final of the Champions League. He has done it all without any assurance from owner Roman Abromovich that he will even be a candidate for the full-time manager role after this campaign concludes. That he may as well be a lame-duck coach makes his boyish giddiness of the sidelines yesterday that much more authentic.
Out of nowhere, Chelsea has transformed from a sixth-place club in the English Premier League into one of the top two teams in Europe. And the Blues have done it in spite of a mid-season coaching change — something that is unheard of in American sports. It’s time to pay attention across the Atlantic.
Hoping for an underdog win is pretty hard when you’re hell-bent on being superstitious.
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