CL Preview: Chelsea – Barcelona, Wednesday 2:45pmET
Chelsea. That name can conjure up quite a series of feelings for just about any cule whose fandom predates 2010. The last time the two teams met, Iniesta rescued the dreams of a triplete from the brink. Before that it was 2006-07 in the group stage, 2005-06 in the knockouts when Barça went through 3-2 on aggregate and 2004-05 when Chelsea went through 5-4 on aggregate. Some of the grayer beards out there may remember 1999-2000 when Barça needed extra time to win 6-4.
There has certainly been joy and heartbreak for both sides in this rivalry, with some fairly breathtaking goals taking place (Ronalinho’s wonder toe poke in 2005 and Essien’s outrageous volley in 2009, for just two examples) but sometimes the ugly side of the game broke through that.
In 2009 Tom Henning Øvrebø was beset by death threats from Chelsea fans after a controversial game at Stamford Bridge, but before that, before Øvrebø was the greatest scapegoat in town, Ander Frisk was pushed into early retirement by Chelsea fans reacting to Jose Mourinho’s goading after a controversial first leg at Camp Nou saw Barça holding a 2-1 advantage and Didier Drogba sitting in the stands with a red card. Then too the ref was sent a slew of death threats. The second leg was no stranger to controversy either, as the 4th goal in Chelsea’s 4-2 victory, the goal that sent them through, could have been called back for an obviously foul on Valdes by Carvalho (full highlights of the game here), but while Pierluigi Collina never mentioned any death threats (I can’t be sure none were sent, of course), the truth was obvious: had Barça merely put away their chances, they would have won with or without that late foul. The same is true of Chelsea in 2009. They played against 10 by dropping deep and allowing easy possession. In the end it killed them.
Hopefully these matches will go more smoothly than those previous ones, but there is little doubt that it will be an anxious semifinal. Frank Lampard may be claiming that Barça is the favorite (and it would be hard to argue otherwise), but going in believing it will be easy is not something that Guardiola will allow. Iniesta has re-iterated the previously stated position of Javier Mascherano and Pep himself that the tie is going to cost quite a bit of energy and probably produce a few more gray hairs for everyone.
With Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard scoring goals like it’s 2005, Roberto Di Matteo seems to have found a way to rejuvenate a squad that, despite reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League under Andres Villas-Boas, was succumbing to the weight of its own veterans. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking has a Guardian column about Ramires’ addition to the Chelsea midfield. Perhaps the most telling line is this: “Ramires is Chelsea’s most frequent tackler and also their most frequent dribbler – a unique role for a Premier League player.” And it’s one that Barça will not only be aware of, but wary of too. His lightning quick attacks are capable of dealing a fatal blow to any Champions League aspirations; he has scored just 11 times himself (though 9 of them have been this season), but he destabilizes defenses rather well and has shown an aptitude for getting a boot in at the right time. His poke on to Fernando Torres against Benfica in the first leg of the quarter finals led to Torres’ cross for Kalou to tap in what turned out to be a tie-deciding goal.
All of that, though, ignores the Chelsea player who might just be better than all the others: Juan Mata. He was purchased from Valencia this last summer for some €28m and has made a massive impact in England—despite there having been some rainy days at Stoke, no doubt. He’s scored 6 league goals and 13 overall this season, a solid number given his 18 assists (according to Wikipedia). Only Frank Lampard, with 16, has more for Chelsea.
Their defense is somewhat stricken of late, with David Luiz picking up a hamstring injury and Gary Cahill a foot injury in their 5-1 FA Cup semifinal win over Tottenham. Luiz looks like he’ll miss out on at least the first leg while Cahill is likely to play despite any lingering side effects he may have. Bosingwa or Ivanovic might have to step in and play pivotal roles at CB if he can’t go—there’s also Paulo Ferreira, who until the Benfica match I thought had retired (he’s played in 6 matches this year), but it seems unlikely that he’ll take part.
On Sunday they started Cech, Cole, Terry, David Luiz, Bosingwa, Lampard, Mikel, Ramires, Kalou, Mata, and Drogba. Tottenham ended up with 51% of the possession against what ZM calls a 4-2-3-1 that employs the same tactic Madrid has been employing against Barça for a while: 2 deep-lying holders hoping to cut off the center. Width will be at a premium, meaning players such as Cuenca and Alexis will have to move quickly into space as well as deftly take on their rather good defensive opponents. Levante offered up a similar scheme, but with worse players and they were not particularly ineffective against Barça’s attack, which ended up looking sluggish until the second half when Cuenca replaced Xavi.
In the end, if Chelsea allow Barça time and space on the ball, you can be fairly confident Barça will prevail. That scenario, where Chelsea back off too much and let the wide players begin to dictate the pace of the game, is unlikely. Bosingwa and Cole are far better than the average pair of wing backs and they could seriously hinder any width-creation simply by being capable of challenging without fouling or giving up position. That would leave Barça’s central attackers—all 3,328 of the little midgets—wanting for service and dropping ever-deeper for possession. It’ll be a tough battle for Chelsea as Barça will never stop looking for crucial away goals, but Barça’s defense will also have to be on high alert throughout the match for loose giveaways.