Roberto Di Matteo’s brief, yet remarkable reign as Chelsea’s caretaker manager continued last night as his side eliminated holders Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate to reach next month’s Champions League final in Munich.
Chelsea came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 and win 3-2 on aggregate, a remarkable feat considering they were down to 10 men for the majority of the game after their captain John Terry was sent off.
A Ramires’ crucial away goal on the stroke of half-time had given them hope and a Fernando Torres injury time goal put the tie game beyond doubt. It was sweet revenge after they were eliminated by the Catalans on away goals in the 2009 semi-finals. As Chelsea’s players danced around on the pitch in celebration, the mood contrasted with the start of the game when 60,000 Catalan flags were waved by the crowd.
Barca had started, as expected, on the offensive. They were frustrated by Chelsea holding up play, though not cynically as the huge crowd’s loud whistles suggested – Gary Cahill overstretched and the defender was replaced by Jose Bosingwa after just 11 minutes.
At the other end, Gerard Pique was briefly knocked unconscious after colliding with Victor Valdes and Didier Drogba after 15 minutes. The defender, seen as crucial to Barca’s chances, returned but he was still dazed and was replaced by Daniel Alves 10 minutes later – not before Drogba had got the better of him to shoot into the side netting in a rare Chelsea attack.
Ahead of the finely poised semi-final tie, Guardiola had said that his players need to “find the balance between patience, rhythm and intensity.”
Barca laboured to find what their coach wanted and the tension was evident in both coaches on the touchline. Pep Guardiola and Roberto Di Matteo, the suited, slimline former professionals, both 41, stood on the edge of their areas urging on their players with their arms.
Without a breakthrough, frustration crept into Barca’s play with Sergio Busquets, of all players, angrily accusing Drogba of play-acting on 33 minutes. Busquets’ emotions changed a minute later as he celebrated after side-footing in a Cuenca cross. Barca were level on aggregate.
It got much worse for Chelsea, with captain John Terry sent off two minutes later for stupidly lifting his knee into Alexis Sanchez’s back on the edge of the penalty box. Never had the Chelsea song of ‘10 men went to mow’ been so prophetic and the visitors’ reduced ranks were soon 2-1 down on aggregate after 43 minutes when Messi put a ball through for Iniesta to side-foot past Petr Cech.
Barca were ascendant, the crowd delirious – and then a major, unexpected, twist just before the break. Ramires ran onto Lampard’s ball and coolly chipped Valdes from just inside the penalty area for a potentially crucial away goal. The initiative was back with the Londoners.
The goal lifted the 4,600 Chelsea fans who had spent the day relaxing in the Barcelona sun. They had been particularly emboldened before the game and taunted Barca fans with chants of “Jose Mourinho”. They had also sung: “We’re only here for the draw” and “Who needs Messi when we have Kalou?”
When play resumed, Barca swarmed over Chelsea and were awarded a penalty after 47 minutes when Drogba fouled Cesc Fabregas. Lionel Messi, who had not scored in all his previous games against Chelsea, stepped up and hit the cross bar. The tension intensified. Frank Lampard became indignant with Fabregas, before Alexis headed limply past Cech’s post as Barca sought another breakthrough. The Catalans had almost all the possession and passed easily around outside the Chelsea area, but the visitors refused to be drawn out of their defensive positions. They didn’t need to be and as Barca grew more frustrated and pushed forward, they left themselves exposed at the back and a ball forward to substitute Fernando Torres saw the Spaniard round Valdes to score.
The visiting fans celebrated wildly and have travel arrangements to make to Bavaria for a clash against Bayern Munich or Real Madrid – something few would have expected when Di Matteo took charge in February.
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