After taking a 1-0 lead into Wednesday’s second leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea was able to upend Benfica for a 3-1 aggregate victory to return to the Champions League semifinals after a three-year hiatus and a chance to avenge a bitter 2009 semifinal loss to Barcelona.
The ’09 semifinal defeat was shrouded in controversy. A dramatic injury time strike from Andres Iniesta sent Barcelona in the Champions League final, in a 1-1 draw at the expense of Chelsea. The Blues dominated the match throughout but failed to add to their lead. After a series of penalty appeals from Chelsea was denied, Iniesta’s eliminating shot sent the Blues in an uproar. Chelsea striker Didier Drogba explicitly shouted that the referee was a “disgrace” and needed to be restrained after the game. Now, the Blues and Barcelona will meet again– and this time history is on the line.
Barcelona, seeking to become the first repeat winners of Europe’s top club competition since Milan in 1989 and ’90, advanced to the semifinals for the fifth consecutive season after another record-setting performance by Lionel Messi on Tuesday. Messi converted a pair of penalty kicks in the first half and the defending champions defeated AC Milan 3-1. Barcelona became the first team to reach the final four in five-straight years since Real Madrid accomplished the feat en route to five consecutive titles from 1956-60.
Despite their recent dominance, don’t expect Barcelona to roll over Chelsea so easily. For the most maligned topflight club in English soccer, Chelsea has exceeded expectations under interim coach Roberto Di Matteo following the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas last month. The Blues have now qualified for the semifinals of the Champions League in six of the past nine seasons, and Wednesday’s win made them five-for-five at Stamford Bridge in the league this season. In addition, the Blues have lost just two of their pervious 40 home European ties against non-English teams, and have won all nine European ties when they won the away leg first. They’ve also conceded more than one goal in only one of their past 14 Champion League home games.
Winning the league for the first time could be Chelsea’s only way of playing in the competition next season as the team sits out of the Premier League’s top four. But Coach Di Matteo knows his team will have to lift its game against Barcelona on April 18 and 24, if they want to keep their title hopes alive.
The key factors for Barca is the recovery of 25-year-old World Cup winner Gerard Pique –who limped off the field in the 75th minute against Milan on Tuesday due to a left knee injury– and if Messi can continue to score and perform at such a high level. The 24-year-old became the youngest players to score 50 Champion League goals. Messi’s past 12 club matches are an average of two goals per outing. And although, the last couple of performances have been less spectacular, he still has made winning contributions nonetheless. With Barca already missing key defender Eric Abidal, who is duo to undergo a liver transplant, Pique speedy rehabilitation is vital as he provides leadership, a winning attitude and adds height to a side that is prone to conceding aerial goals.
At this stage of the season, having been playing with big peaks and troughs in their sharpness and level of concentration, it is of primeval importance for the defending European champions –no club has ever retained the Champions League– to look as determined, quick and dominant as this if they are to make history. Barcelona is regal and it wants to hold on to its European crown.