Barcelona's stunning failure to beat Chelsea: What does it all mean?
Barcelona's failure to beat misfiring, mismatched, misbegotten 10-man Chelsea was one of the most surprising and
In simple terms, Chelsea took a bag of quick-drying cement out onto the pitch, dug a series of small holes along the edge of the penalty area and sealed their players' feet inside them, creating an impenetrable, immovable barrier of man. But that's really only half the story. It's one thing to plan to frustrate Barcelona, it's another to actually pull it off. Chelsea's interim manager Roberto di Matteo initially plumped for a 4-5-1 formation, with Didier Drogba clattering around up front on his own and the two banks of defense and midfield deployed deep and narrow. In fact, these two white lines were so tight that there were times when you would have sworn you could throw a tablecloth in the air and have it land on the heads of at least eight Chelsea players. Guardiola, learning from last week's defeat at Stamford Bridge, left Dani Alves out, put Issac Cuenca wide instead and left Lionel Messi deeper than usual. And it actually worked for a while. Cuenca helped create Sergio Busquets' opener from the flank and, as confusion reigned after John Terry's dismissal (see below), Messi scampered in from the middle to make a second goal, this time for Andres Iniesta. Two goals to the good against 10 men from the sixth-best team in England, eh? What could possibly go wrong?
Barcelona got sloppy. Frank Lampard picked up the ball in space, shrugged off the oncoming Javier Mascherano and played a glorious ball into Ramires. The Brazilian burst through Barcelona's defenders while they were still scratching their heads in surprise before deftly lobbing the ball over the head of a bleary-eyed Victor Valdes. Suddenly, Chelsea had the away goal they needed. At halftime, Di Matteo was able to rebuild his barrier of man, pushing Drogba back to the left of midfield to create a 4-5-0. The Blues no longer had any attackers, but they were able to hold exactly the same shape they had enjoyed before Terry's moment of crashing stupidity. And yet the odds were still stacked against them. Gary Cahill had departed early on with a hamstring injury, Terry was sat in the bath, howling about the injustice of it all, reserve right back Jose Bosingwa was in the center along with Branislav Ivanovic, while bucket-lunged Ramires was now at right back. Chelsea had no way of relieving pressure, a diagnosis confirmed when Drogba broke past the halfway line, looked up at an empty pitch and blasted the ball hopefully at Valdes' goal from 50 yards. But the Blues did, however, still have the lead.
Guardiola didn't have an alternative plan. As much as he was mocked for signing and then frantically off-loading Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the idea was that the truculent Swede would offer a wonderful team a more prosaic option. Had it been able to challenge Chelsea in the air, Barcelona might have had an outlet for all its possession. Instead, it just kept running into that barrier of man. Do you remember that bit in Star Wars where the Death Star plans appear on the big screen and a hapless pilot wails, "But what good are our snub fighters going to be against that!?" The answer here, unfortunately for Barca, was 'no good at all." The Catalans could find no small thermal exhaust port, even when they searched right below the main port, and when they were able to fire off a photon torpedo, it just impacted off the surface. The Death Star cleared the planet, the film ended very differently and Luke Skywalker is now nothing more than a small purple smear on the side of a very long trench.
John Terry's biggest crime wasn't so much ramming a knee up the coccyx of Alexis Sanchez, it was allowing his knee to be seen as it was rammed up the coccyx of Alexis Sanchez. Footballers have been issuing each other with "reminders" for decades, but it's only in recent years that UEFA have positioned extra officials behind the goals. With the ball heading down the other end of the pitch, the referee, and in all probability the linesmen too, were distracted. In Terry's head, this was probably the ideal time to stamp his authority on Sanchez's tailbone. Unfortunately for him, the ideal time for such skulduggery was actually 2009, before UEFA had begun trialling those extra pairs of eyes on the goalie. Terry's stupidest act was to plaintively insist to a passing reporter that the whole thing was a misunderstanding and that Sanchez had brought it on himself by "checking his run" and forcing Terry to crash into the back of him. It will be many years before the former England captain lives this one down.
No, of course it isn't. It is a magnificent soccer team and will remain so regardless of this humiliation. There is still no side that can pass the ball like Barcelona, no team that can break so beguilingly and there is no one, absolutely no one out there like Lionel Messi. It is, however, an important lesson for Guardiola. Even if it isn't Ibrahimovic, Barcelona could really do with a backup striker capable of offering a degree of air superiority, if for no other reason than to prevent this kind of incident. If teams drop deep and narrow, wingers can provide crosses unmolested and big strikers can apply pressure. Without them, you get nights like this.
Permanency? At Chelsea? Ha ha ha! No. Having inherited a broken, discordant squad, drifting in the league and without a prayer in the cups, Di Matteo has taken Chelsea to the brink of European glory as well as booking a place in the FA Cup final next month. Only a coldhearted, know-nothing fool would deny him his hard-earned right to rule now. So...erm...no, he'll probably leave in the summer. For all of its heroics, and there's really no other way to put a result like this, Chelsea's problems are the same as they were last summer for Andre Villas-Boas, the same as they were for Carlo Ancelotti and the same as they were for all the other men unfortunate enough to step into Jose Mourinho's shoes. The club has a fractured chain of command with rival factions competing for the ear of the owner. The key players are aging. There is barely any progression from the youth team to the first team because no manager ever feels secure enough to blood a rookie. The spending sprees of the early years are over and the £75 million ($120M) January 2011 binge of Fernando Torres and David Luiz surely won't be repeated with FFP on the horizon. This year's Champions League Final should mark the end of the first age of Abramovich. It should signal a new dawn of frugality and efficiency, of communication and trust. It won't, of course, but it should. If Di Matteo is given the job, as a morale-boosting perk on the eve of the Cup Final, he is unlikely to keep it for any longer than any of his predecessors. Not without a root and branch change to the way Chelsea go about their business. Given that his reputation as a tactician is now sky high, Di Matteo may want to cast his eye around the European employment market this summer and leave Stamford Bridge with his reputation enhanced.