Thursday, April 05, 2012

If you think that was Messi, there could be worse to come

They call Old Trafford football's "Theatre Of Dreams" but by comparison to Camp Nou - F.C. Barcelona's home ground - the Manchester United stadium is little more than a community playhouse.

Just over a month ago I fulfilled a long-held ambition to see a match at the Catalan giants' jaw-dropping ampitheatre, watching Barça play La Liga minnows Gijon.

To tell you the truth, it wasn't the greatest game I've ever seen: Pep Guardiola had rested several of his star players, including the mercurial Lionel Messi - who, just a few days later, became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League game as they battered Bayer Leverkusen 7-1. Still, they managed to beat Gijon 3-1 and, in so doing, provided an abject reminder that even when below par, they are currently the world's greatest football team.

Which doesn't leave me brimming with confidence about the forthcoming Champions League Semi-Final, in which Messi and amigos will take on Chelsea. By their standards, Barcelona haven't exactly been firing on all cylinders this season. But considering the Leverkusen scoreline, it will be an apocalyptic challenge for the Blues who have, for much of the season been even below being below par.

True, things have picked up since Robbie Di Matteo was installed with the condescending title of "interim first-team coach", finding the means to communicate and motivate his players in a way the hapless André Villas-Boas apparently couldn't.

There has clearly been a new confidence about the team, notably with Fernando Torres looking like his former self - even scoring a goal, God forbid! - and the walking liability that was David Luiz starting to resemble a half-decent centre-half.

These are, however, straws I'm clutching at: the confidence that led to Torres scoring against Aston Villa the other week was undermined by the same back four defensive frailties that let two in. And were it not for the outstanding Petr Čech - who has, frankly, kept Chelsea in more games this season than any of the outfield players - the Villa game, like so many others, could have ended very differently.

Last night Chelsea struggled against a determined 10-man opposition in Benfica. With John Terry disappearing through a worrying rib injury that could leave him out of a packed run of games, Chelsea will tire even further in their build up to the first Semi-Final leg against Barcelona. By the time Barça arrive at Stamford Bridge on April 18, their opponents will have played Wigan and Fulham in the space of two days, and then Tottenham at Wembley in a FA Cup Semi-Final which kicks off only 72 hours before the Barcelona game gets underway.

The fear is that the Catalans - and, specifically, Messi - will just cut through Chelsea like a hot knife. Pessimistic or realistic? You decide. Di Matteo is doing something right and, were it not for the twisted logic of Abramovich managerial strategy, should be considered as Chelsea's permanent manager on the scant basis of the tactical and man-management prowess he has demonstrated over the last month.

The likeable Italian is saying all the right things in declaring: "It will be a combination of playing to our strengths and being aware of theirs," but in recognising the Messi danger, adding: "we have to play our game and play to our strengths."

Good managerspeak, but those strengths aren't obvious, even after a month of re-emerging confidence. Torres is looking brighter, but he's still not the lethal weapon he once was; Daniel Sturridge is blowing hot-and-cold; Didier Drogba is, only when his mind is in the right gear, potent; and Saloman Kalou - who has remained a Chelsea player as inexplicably as the crocodilian family survived whatever wiped out dinosaurs - may have been given more opportunities to play by Di Matteo, but he's still not a forward to give Barcelona defenders too much concern.

Pyschologically, of course, there will be a lot to fire Chelsea up: their 2009 Champions League Semi-Final against Barça was a disgraceful demonstration of refereeing by Norwegian Tom Henning Ovrebo. Who knows whether his defiant ignorance of clear penalty shouts would have led to Chelsea beating Barcelona, but two years ago Chelsea could have been considered equals to Barcelona in many aspects of their game.

That match ended in farce, with a flip-flop wearing Didier Drogba unleashing X-rated invective on an unsuspecting TV camera, and Michael Ballack applying himself to Ovrebo's ankles like an enraged pit bull, such was the understandable vexation almost everyone - Chelsea players, fans and neutrals alike - felt over the Norwegian's inept refereeing.

God only knows how Jose Mourinho would have reacted if still in charge of Chelsea. Given his own history with Barcelona - as both assistant coach and opposing manager - and his predilection for entertainingly explosive histrionics, it is possible he would have simply detonated, cartoon-style, as the only reaction left in his bag of tricks.

Naturally he has an opinion on the outcome of the Chelsea-Barcelona tie, with his Real Madrid a contender for the final itself if they can beat Bayern Munich: “Let me be honest, I don’t think the final will be a Real Madrid-Chelsea final,” Mourinho said on the prospect of an emotional and thrilling meeting between his current and former club.

Typically Mourinho, his conjecture didn't appear solely based on form: "It could be Bayern versus Barcelona, I just don’t think it will be Real Madrid versus Chelsea - and we know why.” Was this a nod-and-a-wink to conspiracy theories that Barcelona are afforded favour in the Champions League? Surely not, the cheeky scamp...

The Chelsea players will be - or at least, should be - fired up for righting the wrongs of that match in 2009: “Everyone’s got unfinished business with Barcelona,” according to Frank Lampard. But even he is realistic in what he'll be up against. "[Barcelona] are the greatest team in the world. They have been and they still are. That game is still in our minds, but this is a different year and we have to try to beat them. They’ll be favourites but we have got belief.”

No doubt, but even the most zealous Chelsea optimist will have to concede that they'll need more than just belief to beat Barcelona over two legs.

1 comment:

  1. Mind-blowing article; realistic and pragmatic take on the shapes going to surface this mid-April. Even hard-core Chelsea fan cant agree more to this article.

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