Chelsea have a slender advantage ahead of their Champions League semi-final second leg against Barcelona after a Didier Drogba striker put them one-up in the tie.
Aside from Drogba feigning agony every 10 minutes in the first-half, unsavoury flashpoints were at a minimum, the referee wasn’t accused of participation in an Anglophobic conspiracy and Barca didn’t even whinge in defeat.
Here’s five things learnt from a rain-soaked and riveting night in west London…
That Didier Drogba is an exceptional striker is nothing new, but he is one of the select few players in world football Barca coach Pep Guardiola has effectively admitted he fears. Dropping Gerard Pique, a defender in nothing but name, he explicitly signalled plans to shackle the Ivorian with Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano’s muscle. Still Drogba scored his third goal against Blaugrana to win the game, and his shameless theatrics riled them. Some achievement considering Barcelona’s penchant for deception.
"You would fit in well with us."
Barcelona have only beaten Chelsea in the Champions League when their opponents have been reduced to 10 men. Their famed, Spanish model of football has many admirers when actually it is as much of a turn-off as watching the old Wimbledon team. In the first half their possession play (they enjoyed 80 per cent overall) included dozens of superfluous passes as they sought to wear down a determined backline, but ironically made defending easier for the hosts.
It was not until they injected some energy into proceedings after they went 1-0 down that it served a genuine purpose, as the passing became more incisive. But similarly to 2009 at Stamford Bridge, the approach failed and this time Andres Iniesta wasn’t central enough to stroke home a valuable away goal. And a referee was not on hand to bail them out, unlike on three past occasions.
One of the most naturally talented footballers on the planet, the 27-year-old Catalan has not been himself this season. Cesc Fabregas’ arrival from Arsenal has seen his international team-mate sacrificed to accommodate his central presence, and Iniesta has regularly cut a forlorn figure.
He still exhibited the touch and poise which saw him win the man of the match award at the 2009 Champions League final, but he has scored fewer league goals than Paul Scholes this season. Marshalled competently by the aggressive Branislav Ivanovic, he was always on the fringes on the game, whereas in 2009 he became more pivotal prior to his goal-scoring crescendo.
UEFA APPOINTED THE RIGHT REFEREE
In the morning, Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo resurfaced via an interview in The Times, three years after his Stamford Bridge storm, where he confessed he would have done things differently. Swede Anders Frisk and Norwegian Terje Hauge (what is it about Scandinavians and this match?) are past alumni of Blues-Blaugrana controversy, so it took a German to belatedly preside over matters properly. Felix Brych was excellent, Only four bookings were meted out as the ebb and flow of the contest wasn’t compromised, and Xavi, usually quickest to whine about the fairest of officials, did not dare air any officialdom frustrations.
DI MATTEO ACKNOWLEDGED INFERIORITY
As great a manager as Sir Alex Ferguson is, like Lord Nelson, he is not a very good tactician. His Manchester United played 4-4-2 against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final – a suicidal act which made defeat inevitable while the 3-1 scoreline flattered the Reds. The Scot’s stubborn streak isn’t matched by Roberto di Matteo, who deliberately isolated Drogba in order to ensure Juan Mata and Ramires – two central players played on the wing – would head inwards to congest the midfield and muck in with the donkey work.
Chelsea, the grit to Barca’s guile, were always going to have to play like Stoke to beat them. And although Guardiola’s team did breach the Blues’ rearguard with regularity, they toiled against a regimented side who showed respect and fearlessness against their visitors. Lionel Messi has not scored against Chelsea in seven matches now, and aside from his debut against them, he has been quiet on every occasion.
Juan Mata expressed his delight post-match: