Chelsea vs Barcelona: 8 Lessons Learned from Champions League Semifinal Upset
Could a Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea Champions League final be in the cards? It's not a matchup that anyone would dare predict, even now, but if results hold, that's what we'll be seeing near the end of May.
No one at B/R, or anywhere else for that matter, predicted a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge for Chelsea vs. Barcelona. They couldn't, because they would've instantly been discredited and ridiculed by the mass public.
How did Chelsea do what so many have failed to do over the years? We'll break that down and more in the coming slides.
Defensive Football Is Still Good Football
In the aftermath of the game, Barcelona fans were quick to point out that they had dominated the Chelsea game from start to finish. Some even went as far as to say that the victory for Chelsea was "undeserved."
Sure, the stats do show that Chelsea were beaten in practically every statistical category. Chelsea had 28 percent possession to Barcelona's 72 percent, and one shot on target to Barca's six.
But to say that those stats make Chelsea's victory undeserved is an insult to the incredible amount of work Chelsea's players put in today. As fans, we're naturally inclined to favor offense over defense because the former is more exciting, but that doesn't mean that the latter is less valuable than the former.
Everyone has their own taste and preferences in the game of football, but there's no denying that defense, like offense, is a difficult art to master. If "parking the bus" were a simple thing to do, wouldn't every team in football just use this strategy to beat Barcelona?
The fact is that 95 percent of the time, "parking the bus" won't be enough to secure a victory against Barcelona. You need to have a team capable of producing quick goal-scoring chances on the counter-attack, and players who won't be discouraged by Barcelona's midfield domination.
That's why only two teams, Chelsea and Getafe, have managed to keep Barca scoreless and emerge victorious this season. Two out of 57 teams, to be precise.
Almost all of us would much rather see a well-timed free kick find the back of the net than a well-timed tackle prevent a player from scoring. But ultimately, both are part of the game, and their beauty or aesthetic pleasantness should not be how we determine if the victories they lead to are "deserved" or "undeserved."
Lionel Messi Is Human After All
In my lessons learned article on the Bayern vs. Real Champions League semifinal, it seemed as though the only thing Barca fans wanted to talk about was how Cristiano Ronaldo failed to perform in a big game.
After Chelsea's matchup with Barcelona though, it seems as though Messi—like Ronaldo—is indeed human, and also has moments when he does not perform at the highest level.
Even though I struggle to label Messi's performance against Chelsea as "bad," since he was at the center or at least involved in practically every positive attack Barcelona had, there's no denying that he was severely limited by Chelsea's defense today.
In addition, he was the one who conceded possession in the middle of the pitch to Frank Lampard, which allowed Chelsea to counter-attack through Ramires and score via Drogba.
His mistake is one that will haunt him for at least a couple of days, until he's given the opportunity to redeem himself against Real Madrid in El Clasico, and later vs. Chelsea in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals.
Messi may be the best player in the world, but he's not perfect. Let's not forget that.
Chelsea's Defense Was Spectacular
Are these seriously the guys who conceded five goals to Arsenal at Stamford Bridge?
If there's one thing that Chelsea's defensive performance confirmed for me, it's that Andre Villas-Boas was absolutely not the right man for Chelsea. Whatever your opinion of him may be, it's ridiculous that Chelsea's defense has been able to improve so drastically with him gone from Chelsea.
But I digress. I seriously considered making a slide for each of Chelsea's defenders just to emphasize how impressive each of their individual contributions were today, but decided it'd be better to collectively credit them for their work.
Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic performed excellently as Chelsea's full-backs vs. Barca. Of course, Cole's near-goal-line clearance for Chelsea is what sticks out most prominently in the mind of those who watched the game, but Cole and Ivanovic were impressive throughout the game.
Alexis Sanchez was kept silent by Cole throughout the game before being subbed out for Pedro, and though Cesc Fabregas had a couple of good chances to score, Ivanovic did enough usually to put Fabregas under pressure and make him miss his shots.
As for Chelsea's center-backs, they were simply incredible.
There was genuine concern among Chelsea fans that Gary Cahill wouldn't be able to fill the shoes of David Luiz, but he did so masterfully, timing his tackles to perfection time and again.
With regards to John Terry, the Chelsea captain rolled back the years, making block after block and tackle after tackle. His tackle at the end of the game when Messi's back-heel caught Chelsea's defense off-guard was truly as good as it gets.
If Chelsea's defense play this well at Camp Nou, Barca may seriously find themselves at risk of not making this year's Champions League final.
Didier Drogba Was the Difference-Maker
Didier Drogba must've found a fountain of youth somewhere, because he's been at his best in recent games.
First, his goal vs. Tottenham set Chelsea on their way to comfortable victory, and today his goal won the game for Chelsea.
But Drogba's performance wasn't just about his goal. Drogba's determination to fight for every loose ball and even help on defense when necessary ensured Chelsea got the result they needed.
Many spectators chose to focus on the dives of Drogba during the game. In truth, he did go to ground a bit too easily on a couple of occasions. But Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl summed it up perfectly:
Yes, Drogba is falling a lot, but he's also expending a tremendous amount of energy in this game. Last play a perfect example.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) April 18, 2012
Drogba haters can say what they want about Drogba, but Chelsea fans will take a performance like that every single day of the year if they can get it from the Ivorian striker.
Juan Mata Was Ineffective
It's important to note that while Chelsea's performance against Barcelona was great, it was not without its flaws, and certainly could've been better. You don't get out-possessed 72 percent to 28 percent without doing something wrong.
One of the biggest flaws in Chelsea's game vs. Barcelona was the almost complete absence of Juan Mata from the game. After controlling play in Chelsea's 5-1 victory over Tottenham last weekend, Mata was little more than a spectator for Chelsea this Wednesday.
It was hoped that Mata and Ramires would offer Didier Drogba support on both his right and left sides, but in truth, Drogba was left to go it alone for much of the game.
Mata, as he tends to do, dropped far too deep and saw very little of the ball. Thus, when it came time for substitutions, Roberto Di Matteo rightly made him the first player to come off, as he was Chelsea's worst player in this game.
Against Tottenham, Mata showed that he's truly at his best when played in the middle behind the striker.
If RDM doesn't want to risk altering his formation significantly for the second leg at Camp Nou, he may have to consider dropping Mata altogether, as the Spanish winger did almost nothing to help the cause this past Wednesday.
Petr Cech Proved He's Still One of the Best Keepers in the World
It's been a long, long time since I, or anyone for that matter, has compliment Cech's goalkeeping. The Czech keeper was once recognized as one of world's top three keepers, but has seen his stock steadily decline in recent years.
But like so many of his teammates, Cech showed how talented he is when at the height of his game against Barcelona.
Cech was vulnerable on more than a couple occasions today. Had Sanchez's chip-shot not hit the bar, or had Pedro's late shot not ricocheted off the post, we might not be talking about what a good game Cech had. Cech was most definitely lucky to keep a clean sheet.
But luck wasn't the only reason Cech was able to keep a clean sheet. Against Barca, Cech was able to add six more saves to his already very impressive saves total in the Champions League.
In particular, his save on a free kick that Puyol had redirected was especially magnificent. Even FC Barcelona's official twitter couldn't believe that Cech had managed to pull it off:
Min 86: Unbelievable save from Cech! Great header from Puyol! #FCBLive— FC Barcelona (@FCBarcelona) April 18, 2012
I always believe that even the best players only become the best because they've been gifted with a healthy amount of luck throughout their careers. Cech got arguably more than his fair share of luck this past Wednesday, but he couldn't have completed the job without his world-class skill.
Cesc Fabregas Struggled
For all the plaudits that Chelsea deserve for their victory over Barca, it's worth remembering that had Cesc Fabregas converted either of the sitters presented to him (there's another one not shown in the link, in addition to his chip that was cleared almost off the line by Ashley Cole), this game would've probably been won, or at least tied up, by Barca.
Fabregas was guilty of missing chances he should've finished, and that was one of the many reasons why Barca lost in London.
It'll be interesting to see how Pep Guardiola responds to Fabregas' poor performance.
I myself was surprised to see that Fabregas started on the wing for this game, as I thought that Andres Iniesta's superior finishing would've helped him put away the chances Fabregas missed.
Will Fabregas swap positions with Iniesta for the second leg? We'll see.
Even though he has a decent goals and assists record as a winger or even a center-forward for Barcelona, I've always thought that Fabregas' rightful position is in the center of midfield, and I believe that this game only gave further support for that idea.
Chelsea Were Lucky
I hate to end on a sour note, but it'd be naive of me to ignore the massive amount of good fortune Chelsea had in this game.
I've already mentioned the two shots that hit the post, and the two sitters missed by Fabregas. There's also the under-hit chip that Ashley Cole was able to clear in the nick of time.
But there's also the fact that Cech was able to remarkably save Puyol's header, and the fact that Gary Cahill played better on the defensive end that he probably ever has in his entire career.
And of course, Lionel Messi's poor game was huge in helping Chelsea secure victory.
Will all of these cases of good fortune repeat themselves for Chelsea at Camp Nou? I'd say the probability of that happening is the same as lightning striking the same place twice.
My intention in bringing this up is not to discredit Chelsea's victory in any way. Rather, my intention is to point out that Chelsea will need a new-and-improved battle plan for when they travel to Spain.
If they go out with the same formation and tactics, expecting Cahill and Terry to put in another near-flawless defensive performance and Drogba to dominate Barca's defense the way he did this Wednesday, they'll be disappointed, and will probably lose by a two-goal margin, if not more.
But if they can find ways to give Drogba more support up front, get John Obi Mikel to make fewer costly mistakes and get Juan Mata more involved in the game, they may just be able to hold on for the draw or 2-1 loss they need to progress to the Champions League final.