x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Chelsea pass the first test with battling victory over Barcelona

Roberto Di Matteo's side ride their luck at Stamford Bridge to take a 1-0 lead into second leg of their Champions League semi-final against Barcelona thanks to Didier Drogba strike.

Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain, tumbles on the soggy pitch at Stamford Bridge last night. Lluis Gene / AFP
Carles Puyol, the Barcelona captain, tumbles on the soggy pitch at Stamford Bridge last night. Lluis Gene / AFP

Chelsea did not just survive trial by Barcelona. They passed it. The side that sit sixth in the English Premier League, a club that looked in crisis in the dark days of Andre Villas-Boas' reign beat the side some consider the best ever. Barcelona's motto is "mes que un club" - more than a club - and this was more than a win.

It was a colossal effort and a resounding endorsement of Roberto Di Matteo, the interim manager who has had an extraordinary impact.

Quite apart from a Didier Drogba goal, it required immense discipline, concentration and determination, mental and physical strength and moments of fortune.

The problem is that it is only half-time.

The sense of surprise at the scoreline indicates the task that awaits them if they are to reach a second Champions League. No team has ever stopped Pep Guardiola's side scoring in a two-legged tie and it is almost an understatement to call them underdogs in the Camp Nou.

But, for 90 minutes, the purists at their peak were subdued by the ageing pragmatists. Excellent as Barcelona inevitably were on the ball, however, there were hints of fragility in defence.

It was exploited in first-half injury time, much of it added on because of the amount of time Drogba had spent writhing around on the ground.

If the assumption was that Lionel Messi would be pivotal in the breakthrough, it proved correct. But not, it can safely be said, in the way most envisaged.

The Argentine was dispossessed by Frank Lampard, who picked out the overlapping Ramires. The Brazilian broke clear, squared unselfishly and Drogba found the corner of Victor Valdes' net.

The deployment of Ramires on the left, where his formidable stamina was especially useful against his indefatigable compatriot Daniel Alves had an added benefit. Ramires and Ashley Cole combined superbly.

In the heart of defence, Gary Cahill outdid John Terry, blocking time and again. They were shielded with well-drilled expertise by Lampard, Raul Meireles and the rejuvenated John Obi Mikel. Drogba led the line with an inimitable blend of fired-up force and histrionics. Each enjoyed a night to savour.

But each had to excel. The pattern of Barcelona possession and Chelsea patience was predictable but, importantly, the Londoners held on. They could have trailed early on.

Andres Iniesta dinked a pass over the static Chelsea back four, Alexis Sanchez and lobbed a static Petr Cech, only to see his effort bounced back off the bar.

There was another reprieve for Di Matteo's team when Cesc Fabregas miskicked after Cech had parried Iniesta's shot.

Yet even when Barcelona appeared at their most incisive, Chelsea never panicked. A backtracking Cole cleared off the line after Fabregas had deftly beaten Cech, following a mesmeric solo run from Messi.

Chelsea's defending was magnificent, Barcelona's finishing rather more mixed.

As they looked to level, a sliding Cole distracted Sanchez, Cech saved superbly from Carles Puyol and Pedro Rodriguez curled a shot against the post.

It was a reprieve, but the worry for Chelsea is there is 90 minutes of the rearguard action to go.


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