Advantage Chelsea

04.19.2012

SPORTS

They defended deep. They defended narrow. In the end, Chelsea managed to hang on to upend the perennial Champions League powerhouse Barcelona 1-0 on Wednesday to take a narrow advantage in the semifinals.

It was personal justice for the alleged injustice of three years ago, when the teams first met in the semifinals. If you recall, Andres Iniesta’s late strike in the second leg in London allowed Barcelona to advance on away goals after Norwegian official Tom Henning Ovrebo waived away several credible Chelsea penalty appeals. Barca’s right-back Daniel Alves, who’s matchup with Chelsea’s Ashley Cole has been intriguing, said that the Blues’ “fear” prevented them, not the referee, from advancing when the teams met in 2009. Chelsea pointed out that Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, the best soccer player on the planet, hadn’t scored against the Blues in six games, an especially rare spell for the Argentine who has found the back of the net 63 times this season. His skid against the Blues was extended on Wednesday.

The Blues turned in a performance for the ages against Barca in the first leg of its Champions League semifinal at Stamford Bridge and set up a must-see second leg of the series in Spain next week. Striker Didier Drogba, who was particularly disgusted with Ovrebo’s performance in ’09, had to deliver playing as the lone front man for Chelsea, and he did, while frustrating and delighting Blues’ fans equally. Messi lost possession of the ball in midfield, and Chelsea’s midfielder Frank Lampard passed to Ramires for a counterattack. Ramiers crossed Drogba, who scuffed his shot but still beat goalkeeper Victor Valdes in the second minute of first-half stoppage time for his 38th Champions League goal. It was Chelsea’s only shot on target.

Messi may have coughed up the ball, but Barca couldn’t break through all night. Chelsea’s solid defense and tactics, such as clogging the center of pitch, did enough to stifle Barcelona’s attack. Barcelona outshot Chelsea 24-5 and had 72 percent possession, compared to Chelsea’s 21 percent, but it was the Blues’ relentless pursuit that handed Barca their first Champions League loss in 14 months. Chelsea defender Gary Cahill was outstanding alongside Chelsea captain John Terry to repeatedly deny Messi, who failed to score for only the second time in his last 15 matches. And thankfully, three years later, the referee didn’t take center stage. The 34-year-old Drogba was all smiles as he lapped up the acclaim of the home fans. “We have learned and we have improved from three years ago because we didn’t concede,” Drogba stated. “The result is a good one, and we will go there and try to score another goal.”

With a must-win against the Real Madrid in the Spanish league on Saturday and then the return leg against Chelsea three days later, Barca has little time to regroup if it wants to reach the Champions League final for the third time in four years. The heavily favored Barcelona, who are seeking to become the first team to win consecutive titles since AC Milan in 1989-90, will either move within a victory of becoming the first back-to-back winner in more than two decades, or Chelsea will have the opportunity to win Europe’s top club title for the first time.

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