The cloud that hangs over Chelsea

By Paul Gardner

A couple of deja vu scenes present themselves. It's 1954 in Berne, and West Germany has just won the World Cup by beating the invincible Hungarians (well, they hadn't lost a game in four years). How could that happen? Or it's 1982 in Barcelona and Brazil, playing really beautiful soccer, has just managed to get knocked out of the World Cup by a rather pedestrian Italian team. Unthinkable. But real.

A couple of absurdly perverse results that remain in the memory primarily because of the outstanding quality of the teams that got beaten.

And here we go again. Another result that didn’t-oughta-happen, but we’re going to get Chelsea, not Barcelona, in the Champions League final. No, I’m not ecstatic about that. In almost every way, Barca is a better -- and certainly a much more entertaining -- team than Chelsea. Exactly as the Hungarians and the Brazilians were so much better than the Germans and the Italians. And grand finals ought to feature the best soccer around.

I was heavily critical of Chelsea in the first leg for playing a totally anti-soccer type game -- in its own stadium. But to play that same way in the Camp Nou, with a 1-0 lead to preserve, at least makes tactical sense, even if it does nothing for the spectacle.

But of course, Coach Roberto Di Matteo can now bask in the praise of getting things right -- for Chelsea is in the final. Whether it would also be there had the club been a good deal more enterprising in its play, we’re not going to know. Doesn’t matter. The soccer stats said caution was the way to play it, and Di Matteo went with the stats. Who can blame him for that?

The deciding factor in this game was much less Chelsea determination -- though there was plenty of that (“heroism” or “courage” as the Brit press likes to call it, terms invariably reserved for Brit teams, I can’t recall Brazilian or Argentine or German, or U.S. teams ever being heroic or courageous) -- than Barcelona incompetence. To have most of the possession and the play over two games, to be playing against 10 men for over 53 minutes, to miss a penalty kick -- and yet not be able to get the deciding goal is hardly a winning formula.

Of course, there was a good deal of bad luck for Barcelona (meaning good luck for Chelsea), but it’s worth remembering that Chelsea had its moment of bad luck in this game, losing defender Gary Cahill after only 12 minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, Chelsea suffered another huge blow, though this one was self-inflicted. What was John Terry thinking when he slammed his knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez? It was an off-the-ball foul, and Terry says it wasn’t intentional. Not believable, of course.

What seems quite likely is that Terry had forgotten that Champions League games are played with those extra officials on the goal lines. When they were first introduced, primarily to determine whether the ball had entered the goal (thereby avoiding the need for the dreaded goal-line technology), another advantage that was mentioned was that they would be able to immediately inform the referee when they spotted an infringement in or around the penalty area. That seems to be what happened here, though I must say this sort of decision has been a very long time coming -- I can’t recall it happening before.

Ironically, the goal that mattered in this game was a goal that had Lionel Messi stamped all over it, a beautifully judged chip over the goalkeeper. Alas for Barcelona, it was not Messi, but Chelsea’s Ramires who scored it. A Brazilian, not an Argentine. When Messi’s turn came, he misjudged his penalty kick -- not wildly, I don’t think Messi’s mistakes can ever be that glaring -- but by maybe eight inches, just enough for the woodwork to ricochet the ball back into play. I’ll admit to not being shocked by Messi’s miss -- somehow, throughout these two games (and El Clasico against Real Madrid at the weekend) Messi has looked a trifle jaded, lacking his usual crystal-clear sharpness.

I repeat, I’d much rather see Barcelona in the final, but based on what happened in the second game (and completely obliterating the first game from memory), I really can’t argue too much against Chelsea being there.

On a positive note, one can feel only happiness for Fernando Torres, who has been going through a miserable spell of inability to score, that he was able to maneuver himself neatly around goalkeeper Victor Valdes to score Chelsea’s second goal. A meaningless goal, as it happens -- but surely not meaningless to Torres.

That Chelsea will lose to its opponent -- whether Bayern Munich or Real Madrid -- now seems virtually certain, given that it will be missing four regulars (captain John Terry, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and Branislav Ivanovic), all suspended for receiving red or yellow cards.

The cloud that hangs over Chelsea now is that Di Matteo might well feel that a further dose of the ultra-defensive play that got the team past the formidable Barcelona might well be the best way to play the final. Or maybe, given the four absentees, the only way. Which is not a good recipe for a sparkling final, a showcase game.

30 comments about "The cloud that hangs over Chelsea".
  1. Tom Symonds, April 24, 2012 at 10:54 p.m.

    Barca has many weapons, but in reality they are basically a one-dimensional team: ticky-tack and nothing aerial threat, no strong striker physically challenging defenders, etc.; nothing but a team of midfielders. When Chelsea went down to 10, they played an intelligent 6 along the back (using two forwards as outside backs) and 3 MFs along the penalty arc. The Blues packed the box and didn't stray from the arc, no one went in on tackles along the arc; the Blues stood off and cut out Barca's passing lanes. Brilliant effort from Chelsea! Barca successfully plays against bunker ball in La Liga almost every week, so there's only one excuse for what you call their "incompetence" - they simply are not good enough to beat a quality Chelsea. So it's time for Messi & Co to go back to padding their stats against the Spanish league minnows - Chelsea's definitely not Zaragoza! Ha!

  2. Bill Anderson, April 24, 2012 at 10:59 p.m.

    The great news for Chelsea is that they are not playing to make Paul Gardner happy. Roberto Di Mateo must and will do what the rosters and fixtures force him to do as the manager. Only a fool would be bull headed enough to game plan for failure. Give Di Mateo Leonel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and he may have a different game plan. His job is to put a winning game plan together given the players on his roster and the team his is facing, nothing more, nothing less.

  3. Ken Sweda, April 24, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.

    You can't recall a US team ever being heroic or courageous? If you are speaking about clubs teams, you may have a point (although those terms are usually code words for "lacking skill", which MLS teams certainly do). But the USMNT has always been labeled as heroic and courageous, especially in the last World Cup. Indeed, that's ALL we usually have going for us, and is largely the reason we advanced as far as they did. So short version, I guess I'm missing your point.

  4. Bill Anderson, April 24, 2012 at 11:03 p.m.

    Barcelona remain and unbalanced squad.
    No Strikers, No Center Back, No Champions League Trophy, No la Liga Championship. If they want to change they must decide to change.

  5. Randy Zackson, April 24, 2012 at 11:19 p.m.

    Barcelona do not play beautiful soccer because beautiful soccer includes dribbling as well as passing. Only once in a while do we get to see Messi make some penetrating dribbling runs. We never see Barcelona players dribbling past their opponents, only countless triangles, give-and-gos, crosses, and slant passes. Soccer without dribbling is not soccer.

  6. . Lev, April 24, 2012 at 11:19 p.m.

    Correction: "The cloud that hangs over Barcelona."

  7. Carlos Thys, April 24, 2012 at 11:58 p.m.

    People really are jumping swiftly on the anti Barca bandwagon. Why? Don't forget that a healthy David Villa would make striker Alexis Sanchez a much better player because Sanchez would not have the near monopoly of playing time that the Chilean now enjoys. The key blow in the first half today was not to Gary Cahill or even the John Terry red card, it was Valdez again looking and behaving very awkwardly when he took out Gerard Pique. I am not sure that most here understand that the lackluster FC Barca performances of late (even when they handily dominated FC Chelsea and embarrassed the Blues at Stamford Bridge in London) with the real low point coming at home Saturday to Real Madrid are the classic signs of fatigue. Football at the FC Barca level with every player in the squad doing national team duties means 365 day football with no breaks. FC Barca fills the calendar because they know that the annual tour to America now in July adds to their revenues. This is madness but the money men of football are only to happy to squeeze more money out of the players despite knowing that it is counterproductive to fitness and that a breakdown will come sooner or later. As to FC Chelsea being in the Munich final, well, no team that just defends -- as FC Chelsea did in now over 180 minutes of football -- deserves to stand to win club football's most coveted trophy. That is just plain cowardly. You won't see FC Bayern Munich defending tomorrow in Madrid. The German side could as they have the goal margin at the moment. A cynical coach like Mourinho would do just that (as he did with Inter two years ago). But the Germans will attack and play offensively. Compare that with the fecklessness displayed by di Matteo's side in over 180 minutes. FC Chelsea advancing in this manner is a disgrace. Football is the loser. We are the losers. And John Terry once more proved that he is probably one of the best paid ugly morons in our world. Hard to believe that a mental midget like him merits a captaincy.

  8. Carlos Thys, April 25, 2012 at 12:18 a.m.

    Are commenters here aware that usually annually Spanish La Liga players top the charts of players with the most games in their legs per season? Typically Real Madrid and FC Barca players feature in these top slots as "most games played" due to not just Spanish national team fixtures but also league (20 clubs) with no winter break and Copa del Rey which always features home AND away ties, except for the final. I am sensing some willful amnesia here. FC Barca just knocked out Bayer Leverkusen and AC Milan. By contrast, who did Chelsea face? FC Barca also tries to get by on a smaller 22 player squad than the 30+ player squads that Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea rely upon. Spanish league rules are much harsher on squad size than the very loose rules in the English Premier League. This makes a huge difference. Chalk this surprise advancement of a boring Chelsea to the final, chalk it up to poor planning on the FC Barca part in terms of player rest, dealing with player fatigue, and game minutes management. As for boring Chelsea, well, look for more Didier Drogba embarrassing antics in the Munich final.

  9. John Pepple, April 25, 2012 at 7:50 a.m.

    Sorry, Paul, but Messi's penalty kick went wildly astray. For someone at his level, I expect to see the ball an inch from the post and in one of the corners (that is, at ground level or where the post and crossbar meet). Messi's shot was nowhere near a corner.

  10. Gak Foodsource, April 25, 2012 at 8:52 a.m.

    Pep made the mistakes in this game. As soon as Pique went down, and he had to sub in Alves, the logic behind the starting lineup with Cuenca on the right was negated. Then, after going up two goals, he needed to go back to 4 in the back and force Chelsea to leave their own penalty box. He took a massive risk playing three in the back after the second goal in trying to get a third, but there was no reason to - Barca had already won the second leg. And I don't understand why Pedro has fallen out of favor, but he seemed exactly what they needed in their past three games - a winger with pace who can finish. Cuenca was out of place in that game.

  11. Gak Foodsource, April 25, 2012 at 8:55 a.m.

    I also agree with Carlos on his comments about the European schedule. You often don't know that your team is over-extended until they are. Trying to win all of the championships in a single season has been tried by many teams before with few successes.

  12. Walt Pericciuoli, April 25, 2012 at 9 a.m.

    Chelsea deserved to win as the game unfolded.Tactics are all a coach can use to win when he knows his team is inferior to the opposing team.Players and coaches are paid to win,not be pretty.Barca needed to find other options.Pep must have known how Chelsea would approach the game yet failed to have his team ready to change tactics, however,Barca still did enough to win the game.A couple of struck posts,great GK saves and a missed PK was the difference.What Barca really needed was better defending. They lacked speed and size in the back line(Abedele would have been a difference)and they needed a performance from their GK.

  13. Theodore Eison, April 25, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.

    Mr. Gardner again exposes himself as the self-loathing Englishman, who once argued against professional fouls with Rick Davis while providing commentary for the Hand of God game back in '86. He doesn't understand soccer, and wishes it could be more like Cirque de Soleil rather than an actual hard nosed sporting event.
    I have read this very article from him at least dozens of times, and I don't know why I keep doing it -- I guess it's a masochistic tendency.

  14. Daniel Clifton, April 25, 2012 at 9:51 a.m.

    I have never quite understood why in such a defensively oriented sport it is somehow unacceptable to concentrate on defense. Barcelona plays a particular style, which obviously many people, including PG enjo, over other ways to play the game. I enjoy watching Barca play but I also enjoy watching other styles. I like some long ball mixed in with keeping the ball on the ground. I like seeing some terrific dribbling, which someone mentioned above. I also appreciate good defense. It seems to me the main reason for Barca's demise is their overly busy schedule including many of their players having national team duty. Thats life in today's pro soccer. Although I appreciate many of the points PG makes in his columns, I get tired of reading this one. Lets give Chelsea some credit for playing smart soccer and scoring when they had the opportunities. What is wrong with the underdog winning?

  15. Daniel Clifton, April 25, 2012 at 10:08 a.m.

    What about the wonderful goal by Ramires? Was that not a beautiful piece of skill?

  16. Ramon Creager, April 25, 2012 at 10:11 a.m.

    I think that this will be an interesting final despite Chelsea's tactics. The connoisseur will be interested to see just how RM or Bayern break down the Chelsea bunker. RM (who I think will prevail today) is a deadlier team than Barca up front. Benzema and Ronaldo seem tailor made to deal with the bunker mentality. A key for them (that is, if they make the final!) will be to show the uncharacteristic discipline that they displayed during El Classico. --- Ultimately though all great teams must deal with any strategy designed to stop them. I agree with those who think Barcelona have become too one-dimensional. Last year's Barcelona would not have lost this game. The difference, I think, was the presence of two fairly low-key but predatory finishers, Villa and Pedro. In a case of overcooking things, in this year's edition Guardiola has preferred Sanchez and Fabregas over Villa and Pedro (this was happening well before Villa's injury). Fabregas especially brings more of what they already have in spades with Iniesta and Xavi, leaving Alexis as the only real forward. It's no wonder they are so one dimensional.

  17. Ramon Creager, April 25, 2012 at 10:31 a.m.

    I can't overemphasize the Villa factor. Folks who only look at goals scored were labeling him a failure in Barcelona after the 2011 season, with "only" 18 goals vs. his 28 and 21 for Valencia the previous 2 seasons. There was talk of buying Guiseppe Rossi from Villarreal; Alexis from Udinese; Cesc from Arsenal. Aside from the bad karma this greed inevitably brings, what these critics were missing is what Villa and Pedro did for Messi. Those two were threats who had to be taken very seriously, leaving much more room for Messi to operate. And despite playing out of their usual central positions (Villa in particular) to make room for Messi, they managed 31 goals between them. There have been fewer contributions from others this season. Alexis and Cesc have only 20 between them. Shut down Messi, and you have a chance.

  18. Tom Symonds, April 25, 2012 at 11 a.m.

    Don't forget, this is supposedly "the world's best team" with "the world's best player" at home in front of 90,000 Catalans against a 10-man, 6th placed EPL squad with no central defenders (Terry & Cahill both out early) and forwards pressed into service as left & right fullbacks...and you're telling me that Barca was "tired"? Gimme a break. They were simply not the best team over the two legs. They failed in London and they failed at home. Thank you, Chelsea. The arrogance that is Barcelona is now feeling the agony that comes from believing your own press clippings of being "the world's best..."

  19. Jack Niner, April 25, 2012 at 11:24 a.m.

    Firtly I'd like to thank Mr Gardner and SA for providing what I believe to be the most insightful soccer board on the WWW - Great discussion by all.

    Now to my pts for the semi-final between Barcelona and Chelsea -

    1) I believe Barcelona's greatest weakness is NOT having a capable backup for Gerard Pique, who I consider as one of the finest central backs to of ever played the game, period. The last three (Chelsea, Madrid, Chelsea) games have exposed this weakness greatly I believe.

    2) Not having #7 David Villa has caused the Barcelona mid-field to be overworked
    - they've been asked to do too much for too long, wearing down their pace and making it easier for a Chelsea with poorly skilled oaf's like Terry and Cahill to defend, or a Madrid with oaf's like Ramos and Pepe.

    3) Fabregas did not lift the offense the way a Villa can.

    4) Pep did not adjust well to the above factors (Barcelona should be deep enough to overcome) and I think should be on the hotseat for the loss - The UCL was Barcelona's to lose, and Pep lost it.

  20. Carlos Thys, April 25, 2012 at 1:09 p.m.

    Above I talk about the fatigue factor. This cannot be overstated. I am quite certain that Vicente Del Bosque is looking on and very concerned about how he can revive and revitalize Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas so he has the dominant midfield he'll need to defend the Espana title. I also think that there is the Pep Guardiola fatigue factor. Goodness! Such a young coach who had only before trained the Barca "B." He'd mastered Jose Mourinho countless times up until Saturday (name one other coach in the world that can claim the same) Everyone who looks at Pep photographs of "before" and "after" can see the aging. Yet there has never been a coach ever to equal what he's done in just four short years. He's only 41 years old!!! And he's bested Sir Alex Ferguson handily in two CL finals. Yes, @Gak Foodsource, Pep G. made some errors in this tie with FC Chelsea. But let's remember, Messi finally harmonized where it counted and fed Andreas Iniesta for the right-footed Iniesta goal in the 43d minute. Pep's thinking, okay, the Turkish ref will blow for halftime and I can get things adjusted (knowing that there is no real compensation for losing Gerard Pique -- to counter the large, leaping headers on Chelsea like Drogba, Banovic and Lampard) Pep's thinking, "In 180 - 240 seconds I can talk to the boys and we craft our new strategy for the second half." Well, all for naught as -- the classic sign of physical and mental fatigue took place -- the Brazilian Ramires scores in the 45 + 1 minute (bought from Benfica Lisboa - NOT raised as a player at FC Chelsea....come to think of many of these players were "raised" at FC Chelsea?) This lapse right before the halftime whistle. Still means FC Chelsea go to Munich. So much for altering the offensive game plan. So let's not be too harsh on Pep. After all, Carlos Puyol and Mascherano are two experienced guys who should have handled that. I think that Pep's biggest errors are actually what also makes him a better coach than some others. Lately he's been trusting and instilling trust in very young players like Isaac Cuenca (19 years old yesterday), Thiago Alcântara (just 21), and Cristian Tello (20). Anybody see a Chelsea player under 25 out there? (Yes, there was but one: Mata -- bought last August from utterly broke Valencia) Let's see if this setback against FC Chelsea and Real Madrid in La Liga brings out the best in a Pep Guardiola, Carlos Puyol and Xavi -- in what could be their last season together, the 2012 - 2013 campaign. (Something for Carlos Puyol to shoot for: The 2013 May Champions League final will again be in London's Wembley. )

  21. Carlos Thys, April 25, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

    By the way, all praise to the Barca fans in Camp Nou who did not boo or hiss or act in improper ways. They actually sang for their team just after Fernando Torres rounded Valdes to seal the win for Chelsea. I don't suspect that there are too many fans and stadiums in the world that would have reacted in such a fine fashion. To those who have never been in the Camp Nou, let me tell you it is a different atmosphere entirely than what one finds in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and certainly in England. It has to be one of the most family-friendly grounds in all of Europe. This means that even with 90,000+ (all seats) it is not as loud as a 45,000 in London. This is due to two big factors. It is not roofed. Only a relatively very small area has any overhead cover. Thus sound exits upward rather than reverberating around the ground due to ugly rooftops that keep noise / sounds often deafeningly loud in the more modern European all roof covered stadia. Also: Those sitting in Camp Nou routinely cheer good exploits by the opposition. They don't go overboard on this, and they only politely, lightly applaud a rare Real Madrid or Espanyol action, but one is not tossed out of the stadium (like at Fulham, West Ham) for a cheer for the other side -- this is no joke, this is done by stewards in EPL stadia. The EPL fandom remains rather brutish and ugly. Fans of opposing sides can sit peaceably with one another in Camp Nou as long as the visiting fans are not so loud or obnoxious. This would be outright dangerous, stupid, and folly in Italy, England, the Netherlands, and much of Germany's stadiums. I have never seen more women, grandparents, and children per capita than in the Camp Nou. Granted, there are probably fewer of them, on average, in a mid-week (school night) CL clash. The Barca fans are known as Socios. And while they may be in Socio clubs (from the surrounding areas in Catalonia), these groups are almost never ever ugly and violent. Go to a London or Merseyside stadium and the average demographic is a 40/41 year old male standing alone or with his few mates of same age. It is a far different, less loud, less boisterous, less beer fueled, more mild crowd that frequents and supports at the Camp Nou. And no where near as ill-tempered and vile-tongued. You can take your wife and kids to Camp Nou and your wife will say, "Hey, let's do that again sometime, okay, honey." She'd probably never utter those words after a clash in the EPL or Championship. Or at San Siro.

  22. Bill Anderson, April 25, 2012 at 3:25 p.m.

    My goodness, now we are not even good enough in the stands, Barcelona just have the market covered everywhere. The arrogance continues to astound me.

  23. Ramon Creager, April 25, 2012 at 4:24 p.m.

    Well Bill Anderson, it's not as if we don't hear "EPL blah blah blah EPL blah blah EPL" all. the. time. on most sites and TV networks here in the US. I remember getting a dose of this from the Fox Soccer commentary team during a UCL game between Valencia and Bayer Leverkusen, even though neither team was EPL! I've learned to live with this kind of snobbery. You can too! ;)

  24. James Froehlich, April 25, 2012 at 8:53 p.m.

    First of all, congrats to Chelsea. It may not have been pretty, but they did what they had to do without resorting to blatant thuggery (Terry excepted). Now, regarding the bashing of Barca!! C'mon guys! This blog usually has a high level of analysis and commentary among its followers, but many of the comments about Barca are a bit over the top. This team has had a dominant presence in Europe for the past 3 or 4 years. They have regularly beaten all comers including, Real Madrid. Now I fully understand that when a dominant team is beaten it is quite normal for the fans of other teams to enjoy the moment but let's not get too carried away. One-dimensional?? Possibly, but with their skill it never mattered in the past. Don't forget they tried the big striker, Ibrahimovich, but he didn't really fit in. No dribblers??? Oh, please!! Besides Messi there are Iniesta, Alves, Pedro, Cuenca, Tello, and Thiago. Just remember that if Messi hadn't blown the PK or his late shot was a few inches to the left, Chelsea fans would be crying in their beers right now. So enjoy the win and place in the finals and don't embarrass yourselves by trying to disprove what everyone in the world has watched for the past couple years.

  25. Tom Symonds, April 25, 2012 at 9:25 p.m.

    That's great, Carlos Thys, that the Barcelona fans are so wonderful. It's nice to know the Nou Camp is such a friendly stadium to go to and you don't have to worry about dodging coins, cigarette lighters, or even severed pig heads being tossed at you.

  26. Andres Yturralde, April 26, 2012 at 9:09 a.m.

    A change is coming... Un cambio viene!

  27. Bill Ford, April 26, 2012 at 9:11 a.m.

    Well said James. I believe Barca has won 13 of the last 16 major tournaments. Two disappointing losses and Barca's entire style of play is brought into question.

  28. Jack Niner, April 26, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.

    I think most would agree, even those who follow English soccer, that it's not a question of 'IF' but rather 'WHEN' will Barcelona be at the very top again - Their organization is just that good.

  29. Carlos Thys, April 26, 2012 at 6:49 p.m.

    People are asking who else FC Barca has to shore up a back defending line, specifically in the central defending. His name is Henrique. And that is FC Barca's probably biggest error of this entire 2011/2012 season, not pulling Henrique back from loan to Palmeiras in Brazil in December or January. Henrique is still just 25 years young and had his fantastic breakout season while on loan to Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga two seasons ago. FC Chelsea and Real Madrid both benefitted from a massively slumping Andreas Iniesta, Dani Alves, Alexi Sanchez, and, most of all, Cesc Fabregas. And something must be wrong with Pedro, as neither Cuenca or Tullo should have gotten so much playing time in these ties if Pedro was healthy. If one can get David Villa healthy again (or just replace him) and bring in Henrique to back up Puyol, Mascherano, and Gerard Pique, the only issue is looking at how much longer Dani Alves legs can carry him up and down the field the way he barnstorms that flank. As long as Pep G. figures out how to play Xavi and Puyol in doses, so as to conserve their ebbing with age energies, FC Barca have nothing to be concerned about.

  30. Charles O'Cain, April 27, 2012 at 9:19 a.m.

    It seems that not only the team but also the manager has suffered fatigue. He and they deserve a rest. It will be of great interest to see where he lands next as manager. Please not Chelsea ... I can think of no team among the "majors" who deserve his talents less. Wenger to France; Guardiola to Arsenal in 2013.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications