Wednesday 25th April 2012
Chelsea concoct the great escape at Camp Nou
Every once in a while, there comes along a European night that makes you rub your eyes in wonder and disbelief.
Tuesday night in Barcelona was one of them.
In recent history, Liverpool fans can look back on their club's 2005 triumph over AC Milan and smile incredulously, Manchester United supporters are still warmed by the glow of their 1999 triumph over Bayern Munich.
Now, the Chelsea faithful have their own piece of timeless memorabilia - a backs-to-the-wall win over the best football team of the modern era, achieved through grit and sheer bloody-mindedness. Even if they fail to cross that final hurdle, April 24, 2012 will be as integral a part of the Blues' history as May 25, 2005 is for Liverpool and May 26, 1999 for United.
Deprived of both their first-choice centrebacks in the first half - one through injury and the other through a moment of sheer madness that reduced them to ten men - the London outfit put up a stirring rearguard to deny the most attacking side the world has seen in two decades.
John Terry added to his list of nightmarish European nights, only this time it was his mind rather than his leg that buckled. But this is not the occasion to expand on yet another indiscretion by the erstwhile England captain. Chelsea might still live to rue his stupidity come May 19, but for now the focus must firmly be on those ten individuals on the pitch who stepped up to fill the void created by their leader.
And first mention has to go to Ramires - the wisp of a midfielder who gave a gladiatorial performance in the centre of the park. On a night when the best player on the planet struggled to complete passes or get on his trademark slicing runs, the Brazilian came up with a goal that Messi himself would be proud to add to his sparkling collection. Ramires' chip - the football equivalent of a luscious meal - was the foundation on which Chelsea built their impregnable fortress.
Having done the job up front, the 25-year-old reverted to his mandate - a mix of breaking up play and desperate clearances - and executed it to absolute perfection. Whatever he does from now on, Ramires will now forever be part of Stamford Bridge folklore.
While Ramires was making his way into Chelsea hearts, Didier Drogba further burnished his legend. Three years ago, at the same stage against the same opponents in the same competition, the Ivorian had walked off the pitch beset with rage. And having played the pantomime villain in the first-leg, Drogba channelled all of his anger to turn in a performance that brought to mind one word - steel.
Playing at the head of the 8-1 and sometimes 9-0 formation that Chelsea were forced to deploy - the striker cleared corners, clattered legs and kept possession just long enough to allow his defence to regroup for the next tsunami of Barcelona attacks. He chased after his own passes and even took shots from inside his own half as the Chelsea defence shook, but did not crumble, thanks to the breathing space allowed them by their battling striker.
Drogba may not be everyone's cup of tea, and he was rightly pilloried for his antics last week - but there can be no doubt that he left everything he had on the Camp Nou pitch on Tuesday. His sole indiscretion was the penalty he conceded for a poor tackle on Cesc Fabregas. But this time, the gods were on the 34-year-old's side.
There was nothing lucky about Petr Cech's reel of saves. Once lauded as one of Premier League's best keepers, Cech had slipped off the radar somewhat recently. On Tuesday, he was back - a hulking presence in the Chelsea goal, repelling everything that came his way - including the one bit of magic that Messi was able to conjure in the game.
It is nearly impossible to encapsulate the individual and collective spirit on display - Dani Alves crossing in - Branislav Ivanovic heading out, Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa laying everything on the line out wide, Jon Obi Mikel hoofing the ball into the night sky every time it came within a two meter radius of him - each player dealing with the incredible pressure in his own way, cocooned from the others yet contributing to the greater cause.
And when Fernando Torres scored the most important goal of his Chelsea career, cue delirium.
And what of the man orchestrating it all? When Jose Mourinho beat Barcelona with Inter Milan under remarkably similar circumstances - a ten-man rearguard after Thiago Motta's first-half sending off - he was hailed, yet again, as a genius. While he may not have reached the Special One's special status yet, surely Roberto di Matteo has done enough to merit the job on a permanent basis, if only for a season?
The man who was out of a job less than the year ago has now taken one of English football's biggest clubs to the cusp of an unprecedented double. His style may leave the purists shaking their heads, but when you steer a side away from disaster before delivering the most memorable result in its history, the purists can shake their heads till they're blue in the face.
Of course luck has had a huge part to play in Chelsea's resurgence. Di Matteo must love the frame of the goal as much as Kenny Dalglish hates it - but everyone involved in the game and everyone who follows it knows all alchemy requires a sprinkling of good fortune. Di Matteo has brought with him sackfuls of it. Surely even Roman Abramovich has to admit that the Italian may just be the man to lead his club forward.
But that is a decision that must come after the biggest night ever for Chelsea - a date with Bayern Munich or Real Madrid at the Allianz Arena. For now, he and the players have every right to bask in Tuesday's win. As for the Chelsea fans, especially the younger ones who constantly bear the taunts of having jumped on the bandwagon after the arrival of the Russian treasure trove at Stamford Bridge, this has to be one of the sweetest days.
Tuesday night was not about individual brilliance, about obscenely paid superstars overwhelming their opponents through sheer quality. It was about teamwork, unity and a refusal to lie down in the face of overwhelming odds. It was the kind of night that club's legacies are built on.
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