April 26, 2012

Chelsea vs. Barcelona: An Upset for the Ages

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Tuesday night’s Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Barcelona was a game for the ages, a four-goal thriller capped by a rare Fernando Torres goal that resulted in a Chelsea victory. It was a roller-coaster of emotion that took Chelsea fans, Barcelona fans, and neutrals (see Gary Neville’s commentary clip when Torres scores the last goal) on an amazing and wildly unpredictable ride. But more than that, in conjunction with Barcelona’s recent home defeat against Real Madrid, it signals the beginning of the end of Barcelona’s reign as kings of the football world.

Chelsea, currently sixth in the Premier League table, came into the second leg of the match with a 1-0 advantage. Their display in the first leg in London was brave if somewhat fortunate. But that was at London; that was at home. Barcelona, the best team in the world (by far) for at least the last three seasons is an entirely different animal at the Nou Camp. Until their defeat by Real Madrid on Saturday, Barcelona hadn’t lost at home in 54 consecutive matches. They’ve been stifled in the Champions League before, notably against Inter Milan, but they still won the home leg.

Before the match, if you had asked me which of Chelsea and Barcelona would end up in the final in Munich, I would have answered Barcelona. I would have said that with great conviction and confidence. And I suspect the vast majority of soccer fans would have agreed with me. After all, Chelsea are hardly having their best season in recent memory (and that is putting it nicely).

But maybe the signs were there. Barcelona’s loss against Real Madrid over the weekend was the first Real Madrid ‘Clasico’ (the name for Barcelona vs. Real Madrid matches in Spain) victory in their last 10 tries in La Liga and the Champions League. The loss also ended their run of 3 consecutive La Liga titles. The Barcelona of recent times, without Eto’o, Villa or Ibrahimovic, have not been clinical in front of net. The passing and possession is there, but aside from Messi, there are no out and out goal scorers in the side. And that was their downfall against Chelsea, with three quarters of the possession rendered meaningless by missed chance after missed chance.

This is not to say that Barcelona is no longer a great team.  In fact, I expect them to win a Champions League (or two) in the near future. But they are no longer alone at the top. Mourinho’s Real Madrid are now their equal. The elite of the elite in Europe now numbers two.

This is not to take anything away from Chelsea. Chelsea have always been able to play Barcelona close and their rugged defending paid off. John Terry’s sending off was reaffirmation of his quality of character, and made Chelsea’s task border on impossible. Needing to score against Barcelona at Camp Nou with only 10 men all the while preventing the Catalans from scoring? Fantasy. It couldn’t be done. But a beautiful Ramires chip and a cool Torres finish later and we have poetic justice for 2009 when Chelsea were denied several possible penalties and went out in the semi-final to a last second Iniesta goal.

Still, with Ivanovic, Terry, Meireles and Ramires out for the final against Bayern Munich, Chelsea have no chance at winning the final. Then again, that statement has a familiar ring to it.

Original Author: Jeff Fitch