Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Even the beautiful game gets a zit from time to time

Hear that? That growling noise? That's the sound of indignant vitriol. Football purists complaining that Chelsea have somehow defiled the beautiful game in their unlikely defeat of Barcelona over two legs. For the next four weeks we will have to put up with griping about how the greatest club side of the modern era were "cheated" out of some divine right to play at the Fußball Arena München on May 19.

Well, sorry if it was "win ugly", but Chelsea are through to the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final and Barcelona are not. Deal with it. What was Roberto Di Matteo going to do? Put out a combative side that was weak and exposed at the back but may - may - have scored one or two goals past an ageing Barça defence? Of course he wasn't.

The likeable Swiss-born Italian was always going to park his expensive bus in front of Petr Čech, whether at Stamford Bridge or Camp Nou, and hope for the best. And it worked - the hope part. Over 180-plus minutes Chelsea rode their luck, on a scale of Mr Magoo hitching a ride on the back of Moby Dick.

This morning that first leg in London seems a long time ago. A game comprised of Chelsea punting the ball upfield to Didier Drogba for 90 minutes, with the Ivorian either running with it, falling over with it or, on one solitary occasion, scoring a goal with it, was indeed a poor advertisement football, I'll concede. But you couldn't fault its effectiveness.

So with that slender away goal advantage, Chelsea took to Barcelona a slim hope that they could, against apparent odds, do the seemingly impossible. I must admit, I was not confident. The statistics didn't help. The size of the Barça pitch wouldn't help. The fact that Lionel Messi had scored on his own almost as many goals as the Chelsea outfield players combined simply added to the hoodoo.

But as soon as Turkish referee Cüneyt Çakır blew his whistle to get the game under way, we were into unknown territory. For 93 minutes it was hard to know where to look. Or for how long. Or why. I'm not even sure it was a game of football. Well, it was at the initial kick-off, when there were 22 players on the field.

If there was a script, no one was remembering their lines. After just 30 seconds Chelsea almost had an unlikely opening goal, before losing Gary Cahill to a hamstring injury after 10 minutes. As Jose Bosingwa - one time first-choice right-back and now spent force - came on you felt that the "blue angel" Ruud Gullitt kept referring to on Twitter was preparing to leave and grace someone else's fortunes.

Sergio Busquets' goal for Barça on 30 minutes restored faith that there may have been a script after all, and that the barely-disguised pundits' view that Chelsea had pushed their luck too far in the first leg meant that the second would be a foregone conclusion to their European adventure.

But that was before the kind of moment of madness that hangs a player out to dry. Remember Beckham's sending off against Argentina? Rooney's against Portugal? Add to that John Terry's sending off against Barcelona. What he initially suggested was an accidental shove against Alexis Sanchez was quickly seen by everyone - at home, in the pub, in the stadium - as a stupid and intentional knee in the back. He deserved to go.

Quite what that did to Chelsea may never be fully understood. To the neutral or even the mildly indifferent, being down to 10 men with its recognised central defensive partnership off the pitch, it looked liked the floodgates were being unlocked. The prospect of a side, whose defensive frailties have been largely to blame for their domestic league position for the first two-thirds of this season, holding out for another hour seemed about as unlikely as the outcome of the Siege of Malta.

Sometimes adversity brings out a strange response. There are stories of those who, like the Incredible Hulk, in a fit of pique perform remarkable acts of physical bravery, freeing people trapped beneath a car by lifting it, despite being a seven-stone weakling. Chelsea, perhaps aggrieved by Terry's red card, or by the genuine fear that, for many of them, this would be their last chance of playing for the opportunity of reaching a European final, dug in.

Discipline - Chelsea's - started to fray, and this proved to be Barcelona's undoing. Barely minutes after being needlessly booked for dissent, Ramires chipped Valdes almost on half time and the script was, all of a sudden, in the shredder. Any hope of the purists' dream being fulfilled, and the rightful order of football being restored by Barcelona walking into another Champions League Final and, probably, the title itself, fell royally on its arse as Ramires restored balance to the aggregate.

In its entirety, the second half of the second leg of the 2012 Champions League Semi-Final between Chelsea and Barcelona was not a football match as anyone would recognise the description. It was now a surreal dream, a baffling footballing version of a David Lynch film in which actors speak dialogue, but you have no actual idea of in what context.

Two minutes into the half, Drogba upended Fabregas inside the box and a penalty was given. It was here, however, that I experienced an odd feeling. As Messi stepped up to take what, surely, would have been a decisive penalty, something made me think that either the heroic Čech would save it, or it would miss the goal itself. And so it did. I can't explain it. In any other game - in any other life - I would have expected Messi to score. But in this freak show, this parallel footballing universe that had somehow crossed into ours, he did not.

Undeterred, the Catalans pressed on and on and on, with Chelsea acquiring yellow cards and suspensions for the-then hypothetical final like an over-eater racks up Nectar points at Sainsbury's. Much of the remaining 40 minutes was played within a 35-yard radius of the Chelsea goalmouth. Kalou, Drogba, Meireles and Ramires looked far more convincing as a back-four than the makeshift back-four itself.

Chelsea still had an aggregate advantage, of course, but as time and nerves ebbed away, the odds grew impossibly that something wouldn't happen, even if, mostly privately, Chelsea fans were thinking the seemingly impossible. That, however, depends on your concept of impossible. When Di Matteo brought on Torres for the tiring Drogba ten minutes before the end of normal time, it was the final signal for Chelsea to batten down the hatches fully. All respect due to Torres, but he wasn't expected to do much other than be downfield to pick up one of the myriad balls being punted out of the Chelsea penalty area with the rapidity of an intense game of squash. The casual nature with which Torres trotted around suggested that he was still warming up, rather than on the field of play.

And then it happened. Like some gem of a secret track hidden on a CD, the Blues lifted another ball out of their penalty area and, 40 seconds into injury time Torres broke away from the Barcelona pack that had camped inside Chelsea's final third. Running in on Victor Valdes unchallenged Torres slipped past the keeper to score a goal that, on any other night this season, he could have easily fluffed.

It was here that the correct emotional response was difficult to pick. Amazement, bewilderment, tears of joy, tears of confusion, borderline mental breakdown, as it became difficult to comprehend exactly what had just happened. In the cold light of day, it's still not easy to work out what happened. Or what has been happening since March 4 when André Villas-Boas was replaced by Roberto Di Matteo as 'interim first-team coach'. A team that had lacked confidence, lacked defensive cohesion, lacked goal-scoring potency and, worst of all, lacked team unity, has restored more or less all of those attributes.

As hangovers pound on today like the Guns of Navarone, there are still many questions for Di Matteo and his side to answer. One of the most obvious improvements in recent weeks has been the defence. Cahill and Terry have started looking like a decent central partnership, Cole has continued to bust a gut on every occasion, and Branislav Ivanovic has continued - when fit - to demonstrate being Chelsea's best outfield player this season. But with Terry and Ivanovic suspended - along with Ramires and Meireles - for the final, and David Luiz continuing to be out injured, much will fall on the shoulders of a recovered Cahill in Munich. The downside is that he's likely to have Jose Bosingwa alongside him, and possibly the veteran Paulo Ferreira rolled out, like an ancient blunderbuss in a modern firefight involving automatic weapons.

Between now and May 19 Chelsea have also got to tackle the politically tricky home fixture this Sunday against QPR, and another tough home match against the strident Newcastle next Wednesday, followed by an FA Cup Final against Liverpool the Saturday after that. But with the unlikely manner to which the team's luck has been stretching so far under Di Matteo, whose to say that these aren't mere hurdles.

"It's an incredible achievement by this group of players. A lot of people had written us off," Di Matteo said after last night's match. He was referring specifically to the Barcelona result, but it more than adequately appraises Chelsea's recovery under him.

It is, sadly, unlikely that Roman Abramovich will appoint Di Matteo permanently to be Chelsea's manager next season.

The feeling inside Stamford Bridge is that, while the Italian has done a remarkable job in restoring the wheels that had fallen off Chelsea's season under his predecessor, his lack of experience in overhauling an ageing squad will count against him.

I'm not so sure: perhaps with a more experienced director of football - Guus Hiddink anyone? - Di Matteo could be left to do whatever it is he has done against the odds in the last seven weeks. Then again, perhaps his magic has only worked with this group of players, and once Abramovich achieves his intention of breaking it up to bring in new blood, the chemistry will be undone.

Chelsea, we should remember, haven't won anything yet.  But the fact that they're in the finals of two of football's most prestigious club cup competitions at the end of a season that, until March, was looking to be a write-off, hats should be flying skyward in recognition of an achievement that even the most churlish of purist would have to concede. Even begrudgingly.

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