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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blue is the Color in the Camp Nou: Chelsea Shock Spaniards Round Two

Insanity in Spain as Barcelona crash out of the UEFA Champions League at the hands of 10 man Chelsea

Torres Hits the Mark for the Blues
After nearly failing to make it out of the Group Stage and struggling to produce any points whatsoever in league play just six months ago, Chelsea, against all odds, manage to secure themselves a spot in the UEFA Champions League 2012 final in Munich. From the starting whistle the match was a tale resembling David versus Goliath, but against all odds, a ten man Chelsea rallied and capitalized on their dramatic win at Stamford Bridge last week and controversial striker Fernando Torres silenced the critics as he scored the match winner and ensured Chelsea’s passage to the next round. 

Barcelona knew they needed to produce a result against the visitors from London if they hoped to have any hope of winning a major trophy this season now that the La Liga title is out of their hands thanks to a home defeat to Real Madrid. The Catalan side pressed almost immediately, Alexis Sanchez forcing a tackle from Gary Cahill that resulted in an injury. It was an early blow to the visitors as they lost their starting left back but Bosingwa came on in his place and the defense held up. Barcelona also had to make an adjustment to their back four in the 25th minute after Gerard Pique collided with his own keeper and suffered from a head injury. He was replaced by the Brazilian defender Dani Alves and was taken down to the locker room for an assessment. By the thirtieth minute, Barcelona had already hit the side netting and kept Cech a very busy man in between the posts for Chelsea. The woodwork would prove to be the Londoners twelfth man yet again as it saved them from conceding several crucial goals.

With thirty-one minutes gone, Mikel was shown the first yellow of the game after he brought down Alexis Sanchez hard in the middle of the field. The resulting kick was harmless, but Barcelona were dominating the visitors, especially young Isaac Cuenca on the left wing for the Catalans. He got in cross after cross throughout the match, his efforts usually ending up in the hands of Cech. In the thirty fourth minute, Sergio was given a gift from the soccer gods as he was able to tap in a cross from Cuenca under virtually no pressure from the Chelsea defense. Their scattered back line had struggled to adapt to the quick movement off of the ball by the young Spanish winger and had left both Sergio and Sanchez unmarked inside their box. Cech and nearly all of the Chelsea defenders committed to Cuenca and Sergio was able to put the ball into the back of the net unchallenged.

Controversy reared its ugly head before either side had a chance to regroup after the goal celebrations. In the 36th minute, Sanchez went down after an altercation with Chelsea Captain John Terry off of the ball and the linesman signaled to the center referee. Fueled by the cheers of the faithful Barcelona fans, the ref reached to his back pocket and pulled a straight red for the Chelsea and former England captain. To the dismay of the Chelsea fans, they were now down a man and had lost their two starting center backs in just over a half an hour of play. The video footage showed that John Terry, when he thought no one was looking, threw a knee into the back of Sanchez for no necessary reason. His immature act of stupidity was no reflection of the acts of the captain and seasoned veteran that he is, and he was given marching orders.
Barcelona continued to pick at the Chelsea backline. It was all hands on deck for the only English side to reach the semi finals as they were toyed with by the quick passes associated with the Spanish side. They were able to fend off the second attack until the 43rd minute when Andres Iniesta tapped a cool and composed finish past the outstretched legs of Petr Cech to put his side up 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate. As it stood, the Chelsea fans were to head home empty handed and the Catalan’s could rejoice reaching yet another UEFA Champions League final. Barcelona were very confident after the second goal, pushing forward with confidence and leaving their back vulnerable to a counter attack.

The visiting side, however, weren’t ready to call it a night and buckle down for the remaining minutes of the match. On a quick counter attack Lampard managed to slot a tantalizing through ball between the defenders on the left of Barcelona’s defense. In the first minute of stoppage time before the break, Ramirez made a brilliant run onto the ball and with a cheeky chip, scored the goal of his life, putting Chelsea level on aggregate but scoring their first away goal. Had the scoreline remained the same, Chelsea were to go through on away goals after Barcelona were unable to find the back of the net when they paid a visit to Stamford Bridge.

As the second half kicked off, Barcelona were immediately pressuring the Chelsea defense, which had gone from a flat back four to more of a flat back seven as they packed their penalty box, defending with admirable discipline and organization. After just two minutes of play, Didier Drogba, the goalscoring hero in the first leg in London, conceded a penalty kick. He was late coming in to attempt to win the ball from Cesc Fabregas. The Spanish midfielder went down and the ref on the goaline didn’t hesitate to direct the center official to the spot. Lionel Messi had put 62 kicks from the spot past keepers previous to this one but all runs must come to an end. The FIFA World Player of the Year failed to put the ball past Cech, instead slamming it off of the crossbar where it went flying back into the box to be cleared by the Chelsea defenders.

It was crunch time for the defending champions as they searched for the desperately needed goal. Nearly the entire duration of the second half consisted of Barcelona passing the ball around the final third of Chelsea’s half. At the top of the eighteen yard box, the turf is surely scuffed as pass after pass was made around the oppositions defenders while the home side looked for some way to penetrate the wall of players in front of Petr Cech. Multiple substitutions, a few yellow cards and no more than three Chelsea breakaways occurred between the 50th and 75th minute, but the real shocker came when Roberto Di Matteo sacrificed Drogba for the Spanish striker Fernando Torres. Torres had enjoyed good form against Barcelona in his playing days for Atletico Madrid, but he has struggled to find similar goal scoring form since leaving Liverpool for Chelsea with a £50m price tag. His presence went nearly unnoticed as Barcelona continued to knock the ball around Chelsea’s box until the closing minutes of stoppage time when Torres found himself on a breakaway. Barcelona were finally dispossessed and the pressure alleviated from the visiting side’s makeshift defensive line. The entire Catalan squad was pushed up to help with the attack and failed to notice Torres prowling just beyond the halfway line. The striker collected the ball at his feet, carried the ball down the field and scored one of the most important goals of his career and of Chelsea Football Club’s history.

The elated Chelsea side had, against all odds, eliminated the defending champions of the UEFA Champions League on their own turf with two back-to-back world class performances. The stand-in manager Roberto Di Matteo celebrated with his men as the final whistle sounded and Chelsea were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. “To be fair, we tried to survive.” Said keeper Petr Cech in his post match report. Regardless of who the Londoners face in the final in Munich, they will have to cope without their captain, John Terry, crucial Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles and the scorers of two of their most important goals this campaign: Ivanovic, who scored the dramatic added time match winner against Benfica in the last round, and Ramirez, who’s chip put Chelsea back in the game and level on the night in Barcelona.

All of the attention of the Spanish newspapers will surely focus on the horrific performance of Lionel Messi. After picking up a yellow card, the Argentine attacker hit the woodwork twice and was virtually ineffective in the attack for Barcelona. Sanchez had a standout performance, but the young Chilean was unable to make a difference on the scoreline for Barcelona and could likely go unrecognized for his fantastic efforts in the match.

The winners from tomorrow’s fixture in Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu will face off against Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final in Munich on the 19th of May.

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