Barcelona stole a remarkable UEFA Champions League semi-final win through Andrés Iniesta’s goal three minutes into added time to earn a showdown with Manchester United in Rome on 27 May.
Chelsea thought they had done enough to earn a repeat of last season’s final as they defended Michael Essien’s breathtaking ninth-minute strike with great resilience only for Essien to then err in failing to clear his lines in the dying moments. Lionel Messi squared to Iniesta and he cut his shot skilfully away from Petr Čech to give the 2006 champions – playing with ten men after Eric Abidal’s second-half dismissal – victory on away goals and the chance to reclaim their crown, although they will have to do it without the suspended Abidal and Daniel Alves.
The visitors set a template for the entire contest by dominating possession in the early stages with Xavi Hernández prompting away, yet their confidence soon took a dent as Essien conjured a goal totally befitting this illustrious company. The move developed down Chelsea’s left with Ashley Cole prominent and Frank Lampard finding a threatening position just outside the penalty area. The midfielder saw his attempted cross brush off Yaya Touré and as the ball ballooned up Essien was alive to the possibilities, taking two steps forward before unleashing a lacerating volley with his left foot that shook the underside of the bar before coming down over the line.
It was a stunning blow and Chelsea looked to kill the tie off before the Spanish league leaders could recover, with Lampard shooting over and Didier Drogba just beaten to a through ball by the onrushing Víctor Valdés. When Florent Malouda was checked illegally on the edge of the Barcelona box, Drogba went for goal from the free-kick and was frustrated to see his effort fly to safety off the goalkeeper’s knee. John Terry headed just wide from the ensuing corner and two minutes later Barcelona were living dangerously again as Drogba, charging on to Lampard’s lofted pass, tumbled under Abidal’s challenge but referee Tom Henning Øvrebø was unmoved.
Would Chelsea come to regret those missed chances? Another followed at the start of the second half as Nicolas Anelka played in Drogba with Barça badly exposed. The Ivorian checked back inside but his attempt to find the net was foiled by the foot of Valdés and Malouda blazed the follow-up into the side-netting. In the main it was the away team who were asking the questions now, with Iniesta becoming more of an influence down the left and Alves, his first-half yellow card having ruled him out of the final, looking to raid down the opposite flank at every opportunity. Messi was not quite firing at his best in the face of constant attention from three or four defenders.
Drogba was always in the thick of things when Chelsea responded at the other end. He had another shout for a penalty denied and with the Camp Nou side throwing more men forward they were increasingly vulnerable to the counter – when Anelka went to the ground just outside the area it led to Abidal’s red card. The Frenchman’s dismissal increased the scale of Barcelona’s task but they kept pegging away, survived a number of scares at the back, and then took their late, golden chance – Iniesta’s 93rd-minute strike their first shot on target of the entire match. It was a crushing blow for Chelsea who were left to reflect on a fourth semi-final defeat in six seasons.
This is a hard loss for Chelsea fans to take. I am sure that they will point to the referee and blame him for the loss, but Chelsea’s approach over the two games was their downfall. Chelsea looked like an Italian team of the 90’s. Hard physical play, hit you on the counter attack and then smother you with defense. It was not pretty, but for 179 minutes it worked.
Of the four teams in the Champions League semi-finals, Chelsea play (ed) the least attractive football. The final in Rome matches the two best teams in Europe, two teams that like to attack and score. Oh and also two players called Messi and Ronaldo. It has the potential to be a classic final.