Three minutes into injury time in a second leg that Chelsea had dominated, the Spain midfielder latched on to a pass from Lionel Messi and lashed an unstoppable shot spinning into the top corner of the net. That was enough to cancel out Michael Essien’s even more stunning ninth-minute strike for Chelsea, level the aggregate score at 1-1 and send the Catalans to Rome on the away goals rule.
“I can understand that Chelsea can be disappointed about the performance of the referee,” said Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola after the match, referring to a pair of contentious no-calls that Chelsea players were sure were penalties. “I did not see the penalties they say there were but it is possible that there were. “You have to give us credit though,” the coach went on. “We tried to win the game, we tried to take the ball and create chances. We did not create as many as I’d hoped, but I expected Chelsea to create a little bit more pressure.”
Out-thought and out-muscled in the goalless first leg in Spain, Barcelona found themselves out-played in what was, until the cruel final minutes, a one-sided Stamford Bridge encounter.
Chelsea had made two changes from the side that had prevented Barcelona from scoring at the Nou Camp for the first time this season. Ashley Cole returned from suspension and John Obi Mikel, one of two defensive midfielders deployed in Barcelona, was sacrificed to accommodate Nicolas Anelka on the right side of a front three.
Barca did not have the luxury of tactical fine-tuning. Already deprived, by suspension and injury, of centrebacks Carles Puyol and Rafael Marquez, Guardiola lost Henry to a knee injury suffered in the 6-2 thrashing of Real Madrid at the weekend. The result was a reshuffle that saw Yaya Toure employed as a stand-in centre-half, Sergio Busquets and Seydou Keita brought into midfield and Iniesta pushed forward to join Messi and Samuel Eto’o in attack.
Pilloried as exponents of “anti-football” after the first leg, Chelsea needed only eight minutes of the return to produce the perfect response with a goal that breathtakingly demonstrated that the Catalans do not enjoy a monopoly on technical excellence. Frank Lampard’s attempted chip was deflected by Toure into Essien’s path and, from just beyond the arc on the edge of the penalty area, the Ghanaian midfielder unleashed a left-foot volley that rattled into the net off the underside of the bar.
Even after falling behind, Barca offered little in terms of real penetration. Daniel Alves was only narrowly off target with a 40-yard free-kick but the Brazilian right-back was also extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty in a wrestling match with Florent Malouda that started outside but continued into the area.
Drogba’s hopeful shot from the tight-angled free-kick that was awarded yielded a corner that produced another chance, John Terry directing his header inches wide. Moments earlier, Drogba had been thwarted by Victor Valdes’s speed off his line and when Lampard released the striker once more shortly afterwards, Chelsea’s appeals for Abidal’s robust challenge to be penalised went unheeded.
A flurry of activity in the run-up to half-time hinted at better things to come from Barca. But it was Chelsea who should have killed the match soon after the restart. Anelka’s surge to the edge of the area allowed him to tee up Drogba, who turned inside Gerard Pique’s desperate lunge only to be denied by the outstretched boot of Valdes.
The Norwegian referee adjudged Abidal to have tripped Anelka from behind as he raced goalwards in pursuit of Drogba’s flick. Television replays suggested minimal contact, but Barca had to play for more than 20 minutes with 10 men. They made enough of a fight of it to have the home supporters biting their nails and, in the end, they sealed the deal with a moment of brilliance. Petr Cech, who had not had a significant save to make until then, was left with no chance by Iniesta’s lovely strike.