Blues bash Barcelona
Heroic defending -- and luck -- hand Chelsea a narrow advantage in their CL semifinal
LONDON -- Ahead of the first leg of their enticing Champions League semifinal in London, Barcelona and Chelsea provided each other with ample motivation, or blackboard material.
Take Daniel Alves, for instance. The galloping Barcelona right-back, who figured to have an intriguing battle with Ashley Cole at Stamford Bridge, said Chelsea's "fear" prevented the Blues, not the referee, from advancing when they met in the semifinals three years ago.
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. Ovrebo revealed this week he still gets death threats from Chelsea fans.
Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo, meanwhile, said Barcelona doesn't like playing against his side. That's all well and true, with Chelsea's five-game unbeaten streak against the Catalans as compelling evidence, but there was no need to supply Barcelona with extra ammunition.
Another statistic was thrown around, too: Lionel Messi, the best soccer player on the planet, hadn't scored against Chelsea in six games, an especially lean spell for the Argentine who has found the back of the net 63 times this season.
As if all this wasn't already enough, adding to the pregame hype was speculation surrounding Pep Guardiola's whereabouts in several months. The Barcelona boss is reportedly wanted by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, although if di Matteo was to engineer an upset over Barcelona and then lead Chelsea to the Champions League title, how could the Russian let him go?
Well, Di Matteo is a step closer to staying on after Chelsea edged Barcelona 1-0 in a truly absorbing contest, and though a single goal is a slender advantage to take onto the larger Camp Nou pitch next Tuesday -- it's an advantage nonetheless. As Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan team demonstrated a few years ago, one needn't keep possession to beat Barcelona; Chelsea had only 21 percent of the ball playing at home. Messi had far from his best night, extending the skid against Chelsea. But for all of Chelsea's solid defense and tactics, such as clogging the center of the pitch, luck did play a significant role.
Didier Drogba had to deliver playing as the lone front man for Chelsea, and he did. In truth Drogba, particularly disgusted with Ovrebo's performance in 2009, frustrated and delighted in equal proportions.
In the first half he spent almost as much time on the ground as on his feet, justifying claims that the Ivorian is a big baby. In one instance as Drogba lay on the pitch, the cameras cut to Fernando Torres, the man whose spot was filled by Drogba, and the Spaniard shook his head, perhaps as if to say, "Not again."
But Drogba was in the mood to strut his stuff, and when that happens, he remains one of the most feared strikers in Europe. His left-footed finish against Tottenham in the FA Cup semifinals shouldn't be forgotten in the wake of Martin Atkinson's refereeing blunders at Wembley last week, and that same left foot gave Chelsea a goal again.
Messi was stripped of possession by Frank Lampard, who found Ramires making a run in space on the left. The Brazilian's perfectly weighted low cross -- with Alves nowhere to be found in the back four -- reached Drogba, who swept it home with his left foot. Barca keeper Victor Valdes got a touch to the ball, although not enough.
The goal was Chelsea's only shot on target.
(Though it must be said that with Barcelona continuing to press in the second half, Drogba gave his team precious time to regroup by earning free kicks, even if his tumbles became more farcically theatrical as the game wore on.)
Messi might be excused for losing possession on the goal. Seconds earlier he was on the floor himself after a slip and appeared to be in some discomfort. Unlike Drogba, you knew the Argentine wasn't faking. His first driving run came late in the first, and resulted in Cesc Fabregas's flick being cleared off the line by Cole, who outshone Alves.
In the second half, the wily Argentine seemed to shrug off his suspected muscle pull and play much better, even if he did strike a free kick straight into the wall and later failed to clear the first man on a corner kick.
Try as they did, Barca couldn't break through. Messi's chipped ball found the head of Carles Puyol in the 87th minute, and Puyol's redirected effort forced Chelsea keeper Petr Cech into a good, diving save. Cech was faultless throughout. Messi also won a free kick in almost the same spot that he wasted his earlier effort, but Xavi uncharacteristically ballooned over the bar.
Fabregas hasn't scored in two months, and maybe a lack of confidence contributed to him squandering his two wonderful opportunities. He didn't do enough on his 42nd minute flick -- Cole darted back to scramble it off the line with Cech beaten -- and shot well wide on a rebound in the 18th minute when it looked like there was little way he could miss.
Alexis Sanchez recently ended his goal drought against Getafe, yet he, too, was guilty of poor finishing. Played onside by Cole, about the only error Cole made, his chip eluded an onrushing Cech but struck the crossbar inside the first 10 minutes. To sum up Barcelona's evening, Pedro's low drive hit the post in injury time, with Sergio Busquets blasting the rebound into the stands when again the net was wide open.
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For all the openings Barcelona created, Cole, central defenders Gary Cahill and John Terry, and midfielders John Obi Mikel and Raul Meireles (contender for worst soccer haircut ever) all put in stellar shifts. Cahill was thrust into the lineup due to David Luiz's hamstring injury and performed better than Barcelona's stand-in central defender, ex-Liverpool man Javier Mascherano.
And thankfully on this rainy night in London, the referee didn't take center stage though, admittedly, German Felix Brych didn't have many tough decisions to make.
Ninety minutes remain to be played in both semifinals at least, but with Real Madrid losing to Bayern Munich 2-1 on Tuesday, perhaps this Saturday's Liga Clasico might be the final one of the season.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.