LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 18: Lionel Messi of Barcelona looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final first leg match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on April 18, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)
Before the match, all I was hoping for was for Chelsea not to embarrass themselves on the big stage. The Blues have done very well to get into the Champions League semifinal, but Barcelona are clearly the more talented side, and nothing less than a heroic performance from the Blues and an indifferent one from the defending champions was going to be good enough for Chelsea to get a decent result at Stamford Bridge.
At the same time, there was hope, and plenty of it. We knew Barcelona had weaknesses to exploit, and we've witnessed first-hand inferior teams beating better teams having bad days - normally us. There was a chance that we would be able to overcome the demons of 2009 and win this match. We just had to find the right way to play.
Chelsea set up in a 4-5-1/4-3-3 designed to stifle the deep midfield space on which Barcelona thrive. Ramires played on the left to nullify Dani Alves, and Juan Mata sat wide right just in case Chelsea ever did get the ball. For the first five minutes it didn't seem as though they would, with the visitors playing some absolutely wonderful passing football. They make ball retention look impossibly easy at times, and it's easy to see why many think the current Barcelona squad is the best to ever play. They weren't going to give us the ball, ever, and Chelsea weren't going to get any chances.
And then the Blues carved one out within four seconds of recovering the ball. Petr Cech's long clearance split the centre backs and found the hulking form of Didier Drogba, who would have been in on goal if not for a first touch that would have made Fernando Torres blush. With 1% of the possession, Chelsea had created a real chance. Barcelona had none.
In fact, Chelsea would get their second clear opportunity before Barcelona had their first, with only a timely tackle by the superb Carles Puyol preventing Drogba from racing clear through on Victor Valdes, but the Catalans' class eventually told and some superb work from Andres Iniesta put Alexis Sanchez through. While Gary Cahill was praying for offside, the former Udinese man tried a cheeky lob over Cech. It looked like it was going to be 1-0 Barcelona, but his shot bounced the crossbar and was then cleared to safety.
Shortly thereafter Chelsea had another chance after Barcelona failed to clear a long throw-in by Branislav Ivanovic. The ball fell between Gary Cahill and John Terry, but neither one of the big defenders was able to poke home for what would have been a certain goal, with the former eventually scooping the loose ball high and wide.
At the other end of the pitch, Lionel Messi was being kept well shackled by Chelsea's central three of Raul Meireles, Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel, but he did wriggle free for an 18-yard header which was well saved by Petr Cech*. A little while later, the little Argentine robbed Mikel and was able to slip in Cesc Fabregas, whose attempted chip of Petr Cech was both poorly aimed and poorly hit (his second terrible shot of the match), allowing the Blues to clear.
*People are calling this a 'chance', for some reason. This is stupid. You cannot score with a header from that range, no matter how well you place it. A chance should be a play in which a situation develops in which a team is reasonably likely to score. The confusion between shots, saves and chances is utterly baffling to me.
Halftime was approaching, and it looked like a matter of holding onto 0-0 until the break when Messi went down injured. Initially I thought Meireles had kicked him without the referee seeing (an action that, frankly, I was fully prepared to endorse at the time), but it turned out to be a slip that looked like it resulted in a pulled groin. Messi, being a brave soul, played on, but within a minute of that fall he'd given the ball away to Lampard in the centre circle.
With Dani Alves pushed way up the pitch, the pass was obvious, and the vice-captain picked out Ramires' run with ease. The Brazilian's first touch meant that he was never going to be able to score, so instead he sucked Barcelona's defence towards him and squeezed a low cross for Didier Drogba at the far post. Drogba, who'd spent much of the first half either offside or on the ground, didn't miss. Chelsea were ahead 1-0.
Adriano was the first Barcelona player to threaten said lead after driving through several players and drawing a good save from Petr Cech with a shot from the edge of the area, but the real letoff came at the hour mark, when Fabregas chipped over the Chelsea defence for Sanchez to run onto. Somehow, the Chilean contrived to miss the net entirely from six yards, perhaps aided in this feat by the tangle of blue shirts that materialised around him as he readied himself to pull the trigger.
Barcelona had almost all of the possession in the second half, and Chelsea weren't really looking as though they even wanted the ball. And why should they? They were in the lead, and for all of their guests' pretty passing they weren't actually threatening very much - a few poorly directed free kicks was about the best we saw from the much-vaunted Barcelona attack until the last few minutes.
They finally got a free kick delivery right as the clock wound down, with Puyol escaping Drogba's attention to flick a header goalwards. Cech was on hand to tip the ball around the post. Further danger was incoming, and Barcelona came perilously close to equalising in the final minute of injury time after a lucky bounce found Pedro open on the Chelsea right. His low shot eluded Cech, forcing Cole to divert the ball onto the post with the faintest of touches. Sergio Busquets blasted the rebound over.
It was to be the last real action of the game. Barcelona outpossessed Chelsea by a lot but were made to pay the price for their complete lack of a cutting edge, and the Blues' win was more or less deserved. Barcelona simply didn't generate enough chances for their non-Messi players to score, and although we got lucky with the Sanchez crossbar, I think Chelsea can be happy with the way they shut down Messi and forced the rest of the guys to play.
So, a 1-0 lead, with the second leg coming up next week. Can we really do this?
Chelsea's man of the match?
Petr Cech (95 votes)
Ashley Cole (74 votes)
John Terry (17 votes)
Gary Cahill (67 votes)
Branislav Ivanovic (3 votes)
John Obi Mikel (4 votes)
Raul Meireles (5 votes)
Frank Lampard (12 votes)
Ramires (26 votes)
Didier Drogba (104 votes)
Salomon Kalou (1 vote)
408 total votes