Much has been made of the fallout from Chelsea’s last-gasp defeat at the hands of Barcelona on Wednesday night, in particular the reaction of Didier Drogba at the final whistle.
Yes, many might agree with the Ivorian that the refereeing was a "disgrace," but the truth is only one of the four shouts the Blues had was worthy of a penalty being awarded (Gerard Pique’s handball from Nicolas Anelka’s flick).
Indeed, a case can be made that Chelsea profited from referee Tom Henning Ovrebo as much as they were disadvantaged—in particular, Eric Abidal’s sending off for a challenge only the Norwegian saw handed Chelsea a numerical advantage for the majority of the second half.
The fact they did not capitalise on this, but instead were content to sit on the slender lead they had, cannot be blamed on the referee.
Over both ties, Chelsea showed little real adventure or ambition and looked destined to go through on the back of one unexpected moment of exquisite beauty from their midfield linchpin. To moan afterwards about the refereeing is simply disingenuous—the misplaced anger of an emotional team devastated to see victory snatched away from them in the cruelest of manners.
Blame must start at home.
Where is the dissection of Petr Cech’s questionable technique that allowed Andres Iniesta’s shot to rifle past him?
Where is the post mortem of the defensive organisation, lax enough to allow arguably Barcelona’s most threatening player on the night space on the edge of the box?
Why didn’t the team go in for the kill when their opponents went down to 10 men?
These questions—nay, criticisms—for Chelsea should be raised and answered. Hiding behind the excuse of poor refereeing will not change anything in the long run. But a bit of self-awareness and reflection, currently so conspicuous in its absence, just might.
Due to the fuss made by much of the Chelsea hierarchy, the consensus already seems to be dismissing Barcelona’s triumph as a result of extreme good fortune.
This paints an inaccurate picture.
If anything, a Barcelona triumph would have been the only fair reflection of the tie.
Barcelona’s manager, Josep Guardiola, deserves great credit for steering his side to success. Yes, Iniesta’s strike came dangerously late, but to restrict a powerful and imposing Chelsea side to one goal in 180 minutes (and a Yeboah-esque wonder strike at that) is an impressive achievement equal to anything their opponents were lauded for at the Nou Camp.
Considering in the second leg Barcelona had to do without the influential presence of Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, and Thierry Henry, Guardiola should be lauded for enabling his team to progress—especially on enemy territory, having seen his side go a goal down.
Playing Yaya Toure in central defence was a masterstroke—the key pre-match decision in a selection full of them. Guardiola had other options—he could have opted for admittedly inconsistent Martin Caceres at the back or put Sergi Busquets as the makeshift defender in order to keep the team’s traditional midfield core together.
But he went for Toure—and the Ivorian proved himself to be the correct choice.
The 25-year-old helped Pique cope with the physicality of Drogba and nullified the threat of a striker that has been in top form in recent weeks. Crucially, though, he also acted as an invaluable distributor of the ball when in possession—bringing it out of defence with panache and starting attacks with intelligence.
He created another facet to Barcelona’s play in attack without sacrificing too much defensive security.
An attacking threat was something they craved, especially as the absence of Henry appeared to considerably blunt the Catalan giant's threat. Iniesta did a solid job deputising in the Frenchman's unfamiliar role, creating a lot of width on the left and generally giving Jose Bosingwa food for thought.
However, thanks in part to Chelsea's dogged and disciplined defence, it rarely looked like anything tangible would come of his prolific industry.
Until the last minute, that is.
In midfield, Busquets stepped up to the plate admirably, as did Seydou Keita. At times they did bend, but never did they break. Confronting arguably the most imposing midfield trio in world football is not something to be overlooked.
Still, the nagging feeling for Chelsea fans today might be that if their team had applied more pressure on the two newcomers, they might have got some reward.
In his career, Guus Hiddink has been on the end of as many fortunate refereeing decisions as poor ones, and he would undoubtedly admit privately that the team cannot really blame anyone other than themselves for the defeat.
Ultimately, Abidal’s red should have been the rag to the bull—spurring the Blues on to go in for the kill. That it didn’t only serves to demonstrate the team are not yet worthy of becoming European champions.
Last night’s match was not a triumph for refereeing, nor a triumph for Chelsea’s style of play—but it was a triumph for the beautiful game.
And it was a triumph for Pep Guardiola.