As supporters of Chelsea Football Club prepared themselves for the away leg of the Champions League Semi-Final against Barcelona at the Nou Camp, fear and paranoia seemed to be building among those who follow the club day in, day out.
You might think that such feelings may be justified from a set of fans who, according to popular opinion, were about to see their team taught a footballing lesson at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s world-beaters, who had been so unjustly robbed in the 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge. It was a forgone conclusion that the mighty European Champions would make use of their home advantage and overturn the deficit of the first tie.
Fans of the team which currently occupies 6th place in the Premier League, were not, however, frightened by the prospect of pitting their eleven men up against the widely-acclaimed best in the world. Nor were they afraid of the possibility that Lionel Messi would finally break his bogey side and eliminate them from the competition. Chelsea supporters dreaded one thing, and one thing only. And that one thing, was the referee.
History had educated those in West London to the fact that the man in the middle can often show himself to be a 12th man for the Catalan side, as evidenced over the years by Champions League red cards dished out to the likes of Celestine Babayaro, Didier Drogba, and Asier Del Horno. Furthermore, it is a largely-ignored statistic that in the Champions League era, Barcelona have failed to beat a Chelsea team that has kept all eleven men on the pitch.
When you factor in Tom Henning Ovrebo’s infamous Stamford Bridge performance, which effectively handed Barcelona a place in the 2009 Champions League final at Chelsea’s expense, you begin to not only empathise with the notions of conspiracy, you find ways to substantiate them.
You see, the Chelsea faithful do not fear Barcelona. Certain quarters of the media (though not many) also agreed that the Blues are possibly best equipped to deal with the Spanish trailblazers. There can be little doubt that it was the frustration of not only those from the Bridge, but also fans of other clubs who have suffered at the hands of this ‘Barcelona treatment’ (stand up Real Madrid, Arsenal, AC Milan) that inspired the rumours which surrounded the respective officials of the first and second legs of Chelsea vs Barcelona.
Felix Brych, the German referee in charge of the Stamford Bridge game, was inaccurately reported as being married to a Catalan wife, and as father to a son who had spent time at Barcelona’s academy. Similarly, in the build-up to the return leg, referee Cuneyt Cakir’s supposed links to Barcelona’s long-term sponsor UNICEF, as well as his relationship with the head of refereeing at UEFA were heavily scrutinised.
And despite a surprisingly low-key performance from Brych, it took Cakir 36 minutes of the Nou Camp tie to show the inevitable red card to a Chelsea player. While few could reasonably make a case that the referee should not have shown the red, this was the most symbolic sending off of them all, as skipper John Terry was forced off the pitch for a seemingly unprovoked attack on Alexis Sanchez.
The reason that the dismissal was symbolic is that Terry is the embodiment of all that is resolute about Chelsea. He, more than any other, was the player most would have agreed the team would need in order to lead the defence against a phenomenal side that had already levelled the aggregate score by the time he’d received his marching orders. The feeling that Terry would be a pivotal figure in the game was only enhanced by Gary Cahill’s early exit from proceedings.
But 1-0 down on the night, and without their leader, Chelsea quickly found themselves 2-0 down after Iniesta added to Busquet’s opener. It was at this point that the effects of the red card truly served to galvanise the side. A point-blank refusal to yet again be victims of circumstance against Barcelona paid instant dividends with that sublime goal from Ramires on the stroke of half-time.
Even having red-carded the Blues captain, Cakir still remembered to award Barcelona their customary Nou Camp penalty. The writing appeared to be on the wall, but Messi kept his puzzling goalless streak against Chelsea alive by thundering the spot-kick off the bar. The ref continued delivering cards, and in the process suspended (in no particular order) Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires, Raul Meireles, and John Terry from the Munich decider.
The London side bravely defended their away goal lead, and even managed to hold out until the last minute, when one of the sweetest goals in the club’s history arrived. Fernando Torres, the £50 million flop finally got his moment of vindication as he returned to his homeland and in the 91st minute had the freedom of the Barcelona half to gallop forward, round Victor Valdes, and coolly stroke Roberto Di Matteo’s team into the final of the competition the Catalans have dominated in recent years.
The beautiful irony is that Cakir ignored what appeared to be a handball from Ashley Cole a split-second before he launched the ball forward from which Torres notched the winning goal. Barcelona needed one penalty too many.
And the story of this game, for me at least, is that the red card we saw handed out was one red card too many. Having lost their most important player, at least in the context of this game, Chelsea might have been on the ropes and looking to damage limitation, battling to make an exit from the competition without being humiliated. Instead, the sense of injustice that has long been felt by Chelsea and its supporters in the history of this most unique of European rivalries finally, and wonderfully, culminated in the team that rode their luck for so long finally getting their comeuppance.
Ryan Hollands, @TheRyski