By Paul Gardner
Chelsea lost big-time yesterday. With almost the last action of the game, it lost a 1-0 lead over Barcelona, and so it lost the chance to be in the UEFA
Champions league final. But it lost a lot more than that.
As the game finished, the Chelsea players -- particularly Didier Drogba -- lost their heads and hounded Norwegian referee Tom
Henning Ovrebo, as though his sub-par performance was the cause of their failure. It was ugly. And in those wild scenes, Chelsea lost respect.
Since Roman Abramovich took over at Chelsea
and started flinging his money around, the club has acquired an unpleasant coating of arrogance. It is not an easy club to like.
The shallowness of that arrogance (and arrogance usually
is a shallow attitude, a cover for some deep-seated weakness) has been pitilessly exposed over the past week during Chelsea's two games with Barcelona.
Chelsea, of course, has
considerable reason to believe in itself. It is, it's safe to say, as expensive a bunch of top-class players as has ever been assembled in club soccer. It won the English Premier League in 2005 and
2006, but for the last two years has had to be satisfied with second place -- to Manchester United. A bitter pill to swallow, made even more bitter because it was ManU that beat Chelsea in last year's
UEFA Champions League final. And that was Chelsea's only chance so far for European glory.
Chelsea, in other words, has not lived up to its billing -- its own billing, that is. In
addition, there is something else that surely irritates the Chelsea brigade. A constant criticism that they're a dull team, not worth watching. Even owner Abramovich is said to feel that way -- and
he's still looking for a coach to bring both sparkle and European honors to the club.
Clearly, he has not found the guy in Guus Hiddink. The fiasco of the two games against Barcelona can
be laid squarely at Hiddink's door. He was only too willing to appear as the modest genius who had engineered that 0-0 tie in Camp Nou, praising his team (and, implicitly, himself) because no other
team this season has been able to shut out Barcelona there.
A major achievement, then? No, not really. Because Chelsea went to Barcelona with a tactical plan to play anti-soccer. Which
means, in plain words, to not really play at all. Just sit back and soak up the pressure and come away with at least a 0-0 tie.
When he was criticized for the utter negativity of that
approach, Hiddink played it cute, admitting that "I'd like to have taken a little bit more of the initiative . ..." Well he could have fooled me.
There seems to be something too
intimidating about Barcelona for English teams. Eight years ago Liverpool -- then coached by Frenchman Gerard Houllier -- went there to play a UEFA Cup game and did exactly what Chelsea has just done.
They refused to play. They defended en masse -- and came away with a 0-0 tie. The Barcelona press accused Houllier and Liverpool of "betraying soccer." Houllier also got cute, admitting that "maybe
we were a little bit negative." Houllier had the last laugh, as Liverpool squeaked through at Anfield, 1-0 (on a penalty kick).
But Hiddink went further than Houllier. He played the
card. Talking of the game in Camp Nou, he said "It was a man's match. There were some collisions, but from either side. It's a man's game."
Well, Hiddink introduced the
subject into the discussion, so let's ask the questions that need to be asked. How "manly" is it to take one of the world's top teams to Barcelona and then be simply too scared to play soccer? There
is a word for that sort of performance, and that word is not "manly." Cowardly is the word.
And having lost out to Barcelona -- in the end, because of Eric Abidal's ejection, Chelsea lost
to 10-man Barcelona -- where now is Chelsea's vaunted manliness? By the standards that Hiddink has applied, should we now be mocking Chelsea as not manly enough?
Hiddink should know
better than to spout such tripe. He got his clever tactics wrong. No, we don't know what would have happened if Chelsea had not been so utterly negative in Barcelona. But we do know that the end
result for Chelsea could not have been worse. So why not play soccer? Why not go looking for goals? In 180 minutes of mostly unsatisfactory soccer we got only two goals -- Michael Essien's for Chelsea
was superb, Andres Iniesta's reply not far behind it. We could have done with more of that.
But no, Hiddink preferred to chicken out of the first game and, implicitly, accuse the
Barcelona players of not being manly enough. Manly? How ironic that the final scenes of the Chelsea players at Stamford Bridge had them behaving like petulant boys.
I'm afraid that it's
still not easy to admire Chelsea. Good riddance to them. The Champions League final between ManU and Barcelona will give us two teams that have never, in my experience, resorted to anti-soccer.