Chelsea Must Sacrifice Arsenal Clash for Champions League
Chelsea proved many of their doubters and detractors wrong when they managed to secure a 1-0 win over Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal on Wednesday.
The Blues' old guard showed they still revel in the siege mentality instilled in them by former manager Jose Mourinho by upsetting the odds with an obdurate and stubborn defensive showing against the European champions at Stamford Bridge.
Didier Drogba scored, Petr Cech's post was repeatedly rattled, and Lionel Messi was left frustrated as the Londoners recorded a result that was inconceivable during the dark days of Andre Villas-Boas earlier in the season.
But for Chelsea to complete the job, they must do all of that again and more when they travel to the Nou Camp for the second leg next Tuesday.
Beating Barcelona in the Champions League is hardly unprecedented. Arsenal did it last season at the Emirates Stadium, but Barca responded with a 3-1 win on their own patch which saw them through, and they went on to lift the trophy for the second time in three years.
The reason that lifting the trophy at Wembley was not the final stage of a hat-trick in the competition was due to Inter Milan eliminating Barca in the 2009-10 semifinals, courtesy of a 3-1 home win in the first leg and one of the most stubborn defensive displays the latter stages has ever seen.
That second leg ended in a 1-0 win for Barca, but it was not enough for Mourinho's Inter to progress and beat Bayern Munich in the final.
Chelsea will be looking at that performance by Inter for inspiration when they travel to face a side they have developed a fierce rivalry with over the past decade, but they can also look to their own recent past in looking for reasons why they can book their place at the Allianz Arena for the final on May 19.
Will Chelsea get the result they need at the Nou Camp to reach the Champions League final?
The Blues have not lost on any of their last three visits to the Nou Camp, recording two score draws there in 2006 and another in 2009. A fourth in succession next week will see them through this season. They still retain many of the key players who featured in those matches, and they will all be key if they are to reach the final at the expense of the reigning champions.
None of those players are more key than Drogba. The Ivorian striker was at his fearsome best and his theatrical worst in the first leg on Tuesday, as Barca could not handle his strength and aerial prowess or his constant play-acting, which helped prevent the visitors from building momentum.
Drogba has been ruled out of Saturday's Premier League clash against Arsenal with a knee injury, but Chelsea are hopeful he will be fit for the second leg of the European tie.
With the Blues two points behind Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United in the battle for fourth place, winning the Champions League may be their best hope of returning to the competition next season.
As such, Chelsea's interim manager Roberto Di Matteo may be wise to rest several of their other key players—especially defenders—in preparation for Tuesday's clash.
John Terry is another who should be given a break, as he continues to nurse injured ribs, while fullbacks Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole could do with a breather before they are required to run themselves into the ground for a second time in as many weeks.
Barcelona cannot afford to do the same. They face bitter rivals Real Madrid in a Clasico on Saturday that will go a long way to deciding the destination of the Spanish title.
Any such encounter would be a mental and physical drain on Pep Guardiola's players, but when a win for them would reduce the gap at the top of La Liga to just a point with four games left to play, there is no opportunity to relent.
Chelsea's players will need to have as much energy in their legs as possible if they are to stifle Barcelona once again or at least avoid being outscored at the Nou Camp.
Just like they did on Tuesday and Inter did two years ago, the Blues must not worry themselves about competing with Barca in terms of possession and completed passes. Leave that to the statisticians.
They rode their luck in the first leg, and they will have to again, but there is not a side out there who can hope to compete with Barcelona in pure footballing terms.
It was not pretty, but Chelsea's first-leg win has shown them the only realistic way that they can hope to emerge from Barcelona as winners of the tie. If that means sacrificing a result at the Emirates on Saturday, then so be it.
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