Football rarely fails to throw up a surprise. Form, talent, skill, experience – all of it can so quickly succumb to nought. From the plucky underdog in the third round to outside winners of international tournaments, the game has shown us time and again that no result should ever be taken for granted. Just when you think this season was drawing to an inevitable and dull conclusion the element of chaos duly intervenes. Spurs were title contenders at the turn of the year, now there’s a real prospect of them slipping out of the top five altogether. The league title looked to be sewn up at Easter and now a lapse from the red half of Manchester means City could top the table by next Monday evening. In even less time Barcelona’s air of invincibility has taken two big blows in the matter of days, leading many commentators to wonder if this might be the end of the cycle for one of the greatest football sides of all time.
Before the game Chelsea weren’t given much hope in our home tie. The media proclaimed our squad was too old, too slow and too tired to take on the might of Messi and co. Various panellists and experts were quick to point out that we didn’t press collectively as a unit, our defence was too immobile and erratic and we wouldn’t hold onto the ball for long enough to cause the Barca backline any problems. We were about to get dizzy on the passing carousel and a humiliation was soundly predicted. When the Barcelona win failed to materialise Chelsea were handed faint praise, a dogged defensive performance, swung more by luck, but normal service would swiftly resume back at the Camp Nou. Here Barcelona hadn’t lost in 55 matches, they’d won all but one of their games there this season. At Camp Nou the Catalonians would routinely turn us over and progress to the final. Chelsea’s ‘luck’ wouldn’t be enough to save us next time.
In the meantime of course there was the small matter of the El Clásico for Barcelona to navigate, a championship decider in all but name. After the weekend their home record disappeared alongside their title hopes. Chelsea meanwhile made sweeping changes to our starting eleven, resting key players, and producing a credible draw at the Emirates. One week on from the first leg and it’s more than conceivable that it might be Barcelona who are the more jaded and overworked by the fixture list rather than the Chelsea old guard. Even so our chances of progressing are still rated as no better than slim, the odds of us going through remain long. The consensus seems to be that Barcelona have too much class and skill not to reach the final once again.
What so many have failed to pick up on though is that Chelsea do not need to win. We don’t even need a draw. All we need is a goal and then Barcelona have to score three. There was enough defensive fragility on display at the Bridge to believe with conviction that this isn’t beyond us. Statically we’ll struggle to keep a clean sheet so the team needs to be prepared to counter quickly with the aim of grabbing a precious away goal. Attacking instinct must be tempered with another defensive and tactical masterclass. Every reserve of extra energy will need to be called upon on Tuesday night. As in the first leg concentration and hard work is key and will be required for the full ninety minutes. Closing down the spaces, reducing the options and narrowing the pitch are vital defensive interventions to slow down the tika-taka pace. As in the first leg Barcelona must be forced to work hard to unpick a tightly packed centre. This time though they also know that they can’t leave space in behind them, Chelsea ruthlessly exposed this last week and will be set up to do so again in Camp Nou. Every player will have one goal in mind. If we play it right Chelsea certainly has what it takes to reach Munich at the expense of the holders.