This is tough. I don’t want to write this match report, and you undoubtedly don’t want to read it. Unfortunately, when the post-match frenzy dies down, the arguments over penalty shouts evaporate, and the dust settles on another emotional night at Stamford Bridge, the facts are plain to see. Barcelona go through to the Champions League Final, and Chelsea go out at the semi-final stage. Michael Essien’s stunning opener was enough to see the Blues through to Rome, but Andres Iniesta popped up with minutes to spare to equalise with Barca’s first shot on target of the night, and bag the away goal which sent a dagger through Chelsea’s Champions League ambitions.
Of course, that is just a brief synopsis of what went on in a match riddled with controversy, but at the moment, it just feels like the same old story repeating itself yet again. We can’t catch a break sometimes, even when it all seems to be on a plate for us. Didier Drogba’s reaction at the final whistle seemed to say it all: “It’s a disgrace. It’s a f*****g disgrace,” bellowed the Ivorian striker at the steadi-cam man, and into the homes of millions of crestfallen Chelsea fans who were probably thinking the same thing.
Disgrace or not, one thing is for certain. The Champions League and hurt are now firmly synonymous as far as Chelsea are concerned.
The battling display in the Nou Camp had frustrated Barca, shut out at home for the first time this season as Chelsea secured a goalless draw. Having allegedly set out to attack in Cataluña, the Blues had been forced back by the attacking might of Barca and it seemed in the first few minutes of this game that history was set to repeat itself.
Barca, although they were missing key defensive personnel, showed no fear and went at Chelsea from the off. Although they didn’t make much headway, the passing was precise and quick and the visitors began to dominate possession.
But Chelsea soon showed that its not how much of the ball you have that’s important, it’s what you do with it. Florent Malouda – busy all evening – worked the ball down the left before cutting the ball back to Ashley Cole. Cole looked to find Lampard but the ball span away from the midfielder and instead found an onrushing Michael Essien. A good 30 yards out, Essien volleyed on his left foot and Victor Valdes in the Barcelona goal was well beaten as the ball struck the crossbar before crossing the line. 1-0 and an absolute beauty. Life was good.
Despite coming against the run of play, Barca were punished for not getting any shots on goal. Chelsea had taken a chance and had a couple more afterwards, Lampard and Drogba wasteful in attack, before the latter shot on goal from a tight-angled free-kick drawing an instinctive save from Valdes. The free-kick had come about after Malouda was blatantly fouled in the box, but bafflingly the referee Tom Ovrebo did not point to the spot.
John Terry headed wide from another set-piece before the break but as the whistle sounded for half-time, the Blues were one-up and had been rarely challenged. We had one foot in Rome.
Although the first-half had seen some Chelsea chances it had had still been tight, but the second period saw Barca push for a goal and leave spaces at the back which the Blues should have exploited.
Nicolas Anelka played Drogba in early in the second-half and with the striker open in the box it looked as if the match was set to be wrapped up right then. But Drogba dallied and cut back on his left, and Valdes was able to save.
Chelsea were getting some joy from pumping balls forward on the counter-attack, and in the 66th minute they exposed Barca’s frailties again and Pep Guardiola’s side were almost made to pay.
As Anelka chased a long pass down the right-flank, he cut across left-back Eric Abidal and, perhaps sensing an arm on the shoulder, took a tumble. Ovrebo – rather harshly – sent Abidal off. The French defender had been lucky not to see red in the first-half for tangling with Drogba in the box – another penalty shout turned down for Chelsea – so perhaps this evened the odds.
Drogba limped off soon afterwards to be replaced by ex-Barca man Juliano Belletti, with Anelka moving up-front and the Brazilian sent on in midfield to help protect the home side’s slim lead.
Ten minutes later Chelsea should have been given a chance to extend that lead but yet again a seemingly blatant penalty was turned down by the increasingly erratic referee Ovrebo. Anelka flicked the ball into the box attempting to knock it past defender Gerard Pique. The ex-Manchester United man clearly had his hand outstretched to prevent the ball from going past him however, yet the penalty shouts again fell on deaf ears.
Although it seemed everything was going against us, time was running out for Barcelona. However, it only takes a second to score a goal and inside injury-time, Barca took advantage of some tiring Chelsea limbs and broke the hearts of Blues’ fans everywhere.
It seemed impossible, improbable, unthinkable. But it happened. Two minutes into stoppage time, Iniesta was left unmarked on the edge of the box following a poor Essien clearance. Swing of the boot. Petr Cech, rarely tested before, beaten. Goal. Chelsea are out. Just like that.
With just seconds to go Chelsea attempted to rally and with one last push, Alex, foraging on the right-wing, won what could have been a valuable corner. Cech showed Chelsea’s desperation by running the full length of the pitch to contest the battle in the box and got his head to the ball swung in, but under pressure he could only knock it backwards. But it made its way to Ballack, the German midfielder winding up and unleashing a volley on goal.
It hit Samuel Eto’o, anonymous throughout, on the arm. Penalty, surely this time. Again, it was turned down. A frustrated Michael Ballack chased the referee, pleading for a decision, but an aggressive protest only brought a yellow card.
The final whistle sounded shortly after, and all hell broke loose. While Barcelona players celebrated in astonishment, some of Chelsea’s men surrounded the referee and his officials upset at the incompetence shown throughout. Drogba picked up a post-match yellow for berating Ovebro before unleashing his tirade at the television cameras. Some of the Blues’ players just hung their heads in quiet resignation.
Usually when there is a debatable refereeing decision (and usually is apt), you can argue that the players should not complain, and instead should redouble their efforts and push harder to make their own luck. But when a referee is as bad as this, and misses so much, it’s difficult to look any further than him.
Although Barcelona may have had more possession, and played pretty football, they did not deserve anything from this match. Dani Alves was abysmal, Lionel Messi went missing, and Eto’o was a big no-no. One shot on target in the whole game says it all.
This was meant to be our night, it was in the bag. But the curse of the Champions League struck again.
Another evening of hurt, another example of missed opportunities, another tale of controversy, scandal and disgrace. Just another European night for Chelsea Football Club then.
Next season fellas. Next season.
Chelsea: Cech, Bosingwa, Alex, Terry, Ashley Cole, Lampard, Essien, Ballack, Anelka, Drogba (Belletti 72), Malouda.
Subs Not Used: Hilario, Ivanovic, Di Santo, Mikel, Kalou, Mancienne.
Goals: Essien 9.
Barcelona: Valdes, Dani Alves, Toure Yaya, Pique, Abidal (sent-off 66), Busquets (Bojan 85), Xavi, Keita, Messi, Eto’o (Sylvinho 90), Iniesta (Gudjohnsen 90).
Subs Not Used: Pinto, Caceres, Hleb, Pedrito.
Goals: Iniesta 90.