x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Won over by Chelsea defects

Overcoming the beast of Barcelona – at Camp Nou with 10 men – has made the Premier League club objectively likable.

Chelsea's display against Barcelona at Camp Nou with 10 men has won them many new admirers. Josep Lago / AFP
Chelsea's display against Barcelona at Camp Nou with 10 men has won them many new admirers. Josep Lago / AFP

After the mind-blowing moment when John Terry kneed Alexis Sanchez as if Sanchez stood in the way of an available handicapped parking space, football reached a weird new epoch.

For the first time since June 2003 when Roman Abramovich descended and began converting roubles to pounds, Chelsea Football Club became objectively likeable.

It took some digestion. It did feel strange. It traded on some strand of magical mathematics which went something like this: not only had the Chelsea XI just managed to cough up their objectively loathsome "captain" for a likeability addition by subtraction, but they had managed to stockpile something they have lacked through their plush, soulless era.

Suddenly, Chelsea were rich in impediments.

Impediments play sterling supporting-actor roles in the greatest days and nights in sport, yet impediments never get enough credit. We should have monuments to impediments, as long as we remember to omit certain self-made impediments such as any boneheaded ownership that would fire Jose Mourinho.

You could sit into the night on Tuesday counting up Chelsea's impediments.

For one, Chelsea would have 10 men. For another, they played at Barcelona's Camp Nou, the global capital of forlorn faces in windows of departing visiting team buses. For another, they would have 10 men. For another, they opposed an offence so fearsome that many fans of Chelsea had spent the bygone week acting as if their side had sprung from League One to oppose this Godzilla.

For another, they would have 10 men. For another, Gary Cahill's screaming hamstring had left the back four disfigured into piecemeal already. For another, they would have 10 men. For another, their alleged leader had departed, and while some of them might just like the sight of Terry leaving, you would think it had to gum up the pre-match planning.

For yet another, they would have 10 men.

Here was Chelsea as a jalopy, an Alice In Wonderland development given the absent owner's non-penchant for jalopies. They didn't even have to undergo the normal sporting practice about concocting false us-against-the-odds scenario. They just conceded a goal that made them seem to unravel, found Ramires for some beauty and went to half time still staring uphill.

Well, as those 10 held up in 10-minute swatch after 10-minute swatch, the freaky thoughts came trickling. Here came Didier Drogba as defensive stalwart thwarting Barcelona possessions rather than somebody admirable yet so chronically supine that he really should bring along a pillow. Here came some good old sporting open-heart surgery to reveal a great big one under the ribs of the blue (and, on Tuesday night, white).

Here came the ironclad conclusion that manager Robert Di Matteo either should have the word "caretaker" removed from his description, or that Abramovich should keep "caretaker" in the official managerial title for Uefa Champions League purposes, as only caretakers get him to finals.

Here came the thought too contrarian by half: who knew Terry was such a liability?

Here came even Fernando Torres.

By any chance, had the players quietly loved the impediments the way athletes often do? Did some little part of them even relish Terry's departure for its steep challenge, setting aside any worries about Terry going inside a stadium that might contain some of their girlfriends?

Barely had Terry finished lying at half time about his Sanchez incident when Lionel Messi missed the penalty off the crossbar, and barely had Terry's handlers finished rewriting his ludicrous response when Barcelona began to seem diminished, almost exhausted, of possibilities, while Petr Cech kept seeming taller and wider.

By the time Chelsea made a throbbing heap of celebrants after the Torres goal, the very idea of Chelsea had budged from flavourless to somewhere along the path to tasty. The impediments had lent the spice. The strange calculus of waning advantages and gathering disadvantages had kicked in. People who did either disliked them or cared not much either way could grab on to something.

And where their former manager living in Madrid has gone accused of playing Barcelona cynically sometimes, you cannot attach cynicism to guys clinging to the jalopy in a 95,000-strong windstorm.

So they take their red-and-yellow card collection to Munich, where their riddled line-up faces another bout with the uphill. Only now they're a gutty bunch possibly addicted to the uphill, given Napoli and now this. This quirky little sixth-place scrapper might just make it all the way and, as a bonus, do so while lacking Terry, whose absence could make any group more likeable.