Chelsea 2-2 Barcelona

In Stunner, Chelsea Advances to Champions League Final


BARCELONA, Spain — When it was over, and the balloons had shriveled and the whistles had faded away, Lionel Messi put his hands to his head. Messi, the slick, slippery forward, was rooted to his spot: it was as if he could not believe what he was seeing.

He was not alone. Around him, the Chelsea players threw their arms over one another, hugging in equal parts glee and exhaustion, while the Barcelona players only stared, as if overwhelmed by two sobering truths: on this day, Messi, perhaps the greatest player in the world, could not score. And Barcelona, perhaps the greatest team in the world, could not win.

Instead it was Chelsea, despite playing a man short for nearly an hour in front of a frenzied crowd at the Camp Nou stadium, that advanced to the Champions League final. After winning, 1-0, in the first leg of this semifinal, Chelsea’s 2-2 draw Tuesday was more than enough. The Blues will face Real Madrid or Bayern Munich in the final.

For Barcelona, the result was shocking. Questions had lingered over the Catalans after they lost their last two matches, including a dispiriting defeat here against Real Madrid over the weekend which virtually assured that Real Madrid would win the Spanish League title. Now, after losing three straight games for the first time since 2003, the focus on Coach Pep Guardiola will only increase.

Messi, too, will be scrutinized. A dazzling Argentine, Messi is known for his scoring but he was held goalless again Tuesday, missing chances of every kind, including one from the penalty spot.

That kick, which clanged off the crossbar, will be the moment Barcelona fans rue. Trailing by a goal on aggregate after Ramires’s finish in injury time of the first half had given Chelsea an unlikely advantage on aggregate, a Barcelona goal would have put the Catalans back in control. Instead, they were forced to continue pressing, trying to capitalize on the man advantage provided by John Terry’s sending off in the 37th minute.

They came close: Barcelona had a goal called back for offside and Messi, again, hit the post with a low blast as Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech could only stare.

It just was not enough, and when Fernando Torres broke clear in second-half injury time to provide an insurance score, the Barcelona fans — who have seen their side win 13 trophies since 2008 under Guardiola — were silenced.

Earlier, of course, it was more festive. Fans of both teams packed the city’s downtown Tuesday afternoon, with locals in stripes whistling at the Chelsea fans who strolled the streets in blue. The English side had decent support though, and a throng of fans put up signs in the Placa de Joaquim Xirau, taking over the square amid beers and British chants.

At the stadium, however, the cheers for Chelsea were largely drowned out. The Barcelona faithful were in full throat early as it became clear that Chelsea was using a familiar formula: pack in the defenders and hope for a counter-attack against the slick-passing Catalans.

Because of that, much of the first half looked like a drill from a youth soccer practice: Barcelona controlled the ball in the area around the Chelsea penalty area, poking and prodding and trying to find a way through a space more congested than Las Ramblas, the tourist mecca here, on a sunny day.

Barcelona finally broke through in the 35th minute, as Dani Alves began a striking attack with a run through the middle before finding Isaac Cuenca on the outside. Cuenca raced to the end line but did not force a sharp-angled shot, instead cutting the ball back for Sergio Busquets to coolly slot home.

Of course, Alves was only in the game because Barcelona’s starting center back, Gerard Piqué, was flattened in a scary collision with his own goalkeeper, Victor Valdes. Chasing a high-bouncing ball, Piqué never saw Valdes rushing out and the defender’s head crashed into Valdes, leaving Piqué limp near the edge of his penalty area.

Incredibly, Piqué returned to the field for a few minutes before being substituted, and he was in the dressing room when the first half exploded in its final minutes. Two minutes after Chelsea lost its lead it also lost its leader when Terry was sent off for an inexplicable knee to the back of Alexis Sánchez. Terry looked confounded and screamed in protest, but the contact was clear and the Turkish referee, Cuneyt Cakir, appeared to get guidance from one of his assistants before showing a red card.

Reduced to 10 men, it seemed Chelsea might only defend further and hope to take the match to penalty kicks, but Andrés Iniesta quickly foiled any thoughts of that plan with a smooth finish off a feed from Messi in the 43rd minute that had most of those in the Camp Nou dancing in their seats. With an advantage of one goal and one man, it seemed as if Barcelona might bulldoze its way to the final.

But then came Ramires’s beautiful chip over Valdes, followed not long after by Messi’s miss. Suddenly, Barcelona’s Champions League season — and, perhaps, its dynasty — was over.

© ÓrbitanewsSport 2011