Round 2 promises to be more action-packed, controversial, and yeah, decisive. Strap in for the rematch folks- this one promises to be a blinder. More, after the jump:
A date with destiny
Indeed, it appears we get to do this all over again. After last week's 'controversial' victory at The Bridge, Chelsea enter the Camp Nou with a narrow 1-0 lead on aggregate. By now all of us have savored the taste of victory over the Catalonians, and many are confident enough to declare that victory is clearly in our favor. If I had to declare my feelings at this point, I'd say 'cautiously optimistic' would sum it up. Certainly, there are positives that can be derived from last week. Our defensive resolve, so battered and embarrassing throughout this season, was in fine form against both Barca and Arsenal. That we nabbed a goal for our efforts was the truest revenge for what's transpired in head-to-head history between our sides. If we were undeserving in our victory, as many in the press and Spain would have you believe, then we should be grateful for our slim advantage heading into tomorrow. But let's not get carried away just yet. Barcelona may well be walking wounded, but their pride and quality suggests we're in for a showcase in attacking football tomorrow evening. On to the specifics:
Who: Futbol Club Barcelona (est. 1899)
What: UEFA Champions League Semifinals, second leg
When: 24 April, 7:45pm local time (2:45pm EST)
Where: Camp Nou (99,354)
How: Fox Soccer Channel (DirecTV 619, Dish Network 149)
Why: The directive for defining success this season has been handed down from Roman. If Roberto wants to retain his job, he needs to advance through tomorrow night. Nothing short of a victory on aggregate will satisfy the powers that be. Considering how slack we've been on the domestic front, if we're to ensure Champions League football for next term, we have no choice but to win outright. Simple right? Bear in mind, losing out on CL football makes our club a less attractive venue to potential players, and sends a massive financial gut-punch through the club and institution overall. So, you know, no pressure or anything like that.
I could give you a romantic tale of redemption, but I'd prefer to be succinct with what this tie means. Sure, there exists lingering resentment over the dramatic episode that was our 2009 encounter, and undoubtedly many in Blue tomorrow will be channeling those sentiments onto the pitch. But we're three years removed from those circumstances and a lot has changed. At present, we're two very different sides on completely unique trajectories. Barcelona have been lauded as the epitome of perfect football for three years on the trot- rolling out the red carpet for their litany of megawatt superstars that utilize fleet-footed attacking and sixth-sense sensibilities to read and react to situations. Chelsea, meanwhile, are in the tail-end of a bygone era that was planted some seven years ago. I've said it before, this is the end of the road for a number of our favorites. It's likely that many if not most of these players will be cleared out in a unilateral swing of the axe this summer. Winning the competition will be the only tonic that could possibly prevent a massive overhaul. These players know this. Roberto is well aware of the consequences of failure. But perhaps more importantly, Chelsea will do well to define their aspirations as a club for the future with tomorrow's performance. A victory underlines the clubs continued pursuit of success in the face of adversity- an unwavering spirit to find and remedy problems and ultimately bandage wounds to salvage a semblance of pride. Behind that beautiful prose though, the truth is quite simple: a win keeps everyone smiling, and all these players on board. A loss? I shudder to think of the consequences.
Them: It hasn't exactly been a great week for the boys from Barcelona. Consecutive losses to us and Real Madrid on the weekend have all but ended their hopes of stealing La Liga from the Madridistas. Couple that with a small contingent of naysayers coming out of the woodwork and you've got a molotov cocktail that's ready to explode. Losing again would be slightly catastrophic for Barca- and that's really saying something. More than anything, it underscores just how brilliant they've been for some five years now. Three losses in a row is a bad stretch for any side, sure. It happens more often than not to all major clubs, us included. But for Barcelona, who have been the standard bearer of excellence for quite some time, what would three losses truly mean? This weekend, they succumbed to a much-improved and ultimately hungrier Madrid side that were led by scintillating attacking performances across the park. That man Cristiano got involved in the act. Jose was patrolling the touchline. Mesut Ozil did the business. It was a bold victory, in Barcelona, for a Madrid side that set out to declare their intentions for how the season would end. Perhaps most surprising was Jose's decision to field a predominantly attacking side on the road. There were two distinct takeaways from this for me:
- Clearly, Barcelona are not impenetrable on their turf. Though they might be bolstered by their 100,000 fans in attendance, they can be carved apart just like any other side. On Saturday, Madrid used size and speed for their two goals.
- Jose's tried just about everything to beat Barcelona. On Saturday, he went with a very RDM styled 4-2-3-1, and profited from playing less defensive over 75 minutes. Granted, he parked the bus with a smile on his face to see through the result, but for the majority of the match, Madrid did the unthinkable and attacked Barcelona- on their home ground! Blasphemy!
What you can deduce from this is, in very general terms, that it is very possible for us to get a result tomorrow. We've managed a 0-0 in '09 under Guus' tutelage, and we can certainly garner that tomorrow. But it's unrealistic to expect that we can keep them quiet at home after enduring two losses. They'll be revved up for this, and looking for the back of the net. The key then, comes down to that ultimately useless statistic- possession. Last week, it seemed Barcelona were running training exercises with the amount they dominated the ball. In our brief moments of control, we either- attempted to rush frantically away from the pressing Barca defense, or, hoofed-it to Didier to play the long ball. In one instance, it came together to produce a wonderful goal. Beyond that, there was nothing in the way of attacking football that we can be proud of. But on this evidence, with Real demonstrating how it is not only possible, but realistic, to come at Barca from all angles, Chelsea should have hope.
For Barcelona, this match is simply about getting back to basics. Pass-and-move football notwithstanding, it will likely be about who dictates the tempo and who creates the lions-share of chances. If anything, Barcelona were truly unlucky not to net last week. Gilt-edged chances came early, in the middle, and at the death, but the finishing was simply not up to par. Even on the weekend, there were at least two chances that were not turned into goals- quite unlike their reputation suggests. It's been already confirmed that Gerard Pique will be recalled into the side to combat the physical nature of Didier Drogba, but beyond that inclusion, it's anyone's guess what Barca elect to do. I would anticipate Alexis Sanchez, Messi, and Fabregas comprise a top three, supported by Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta. There's also Pedro who could start in Fabregas' spot. Clearly, the pressure is on Pep Guardiola (who I genuinely admire) to get his side prepared for tomorrow and to bring home a comprehensive result.
Us: We made it through the weekend without a scratch. That, my friends, is a moral victory. Roberto essentially swapped the entire squad for Saturday's trip to the Emirates, with no less than eight players rested with tomorrow in mind. Returning to the squad will likely be the same band of misfits that got the job done on Wednesday. We continue to be without the services of David Luiz, but beyond that we're in good shape (Didier has been passed fit for tomorrow). We may be listing to the finish line domestically, but on this particular continental circuit, we're the lovable underdog. Imagine that- we, Chelsea, are the outsider looking in and in pole position to make it to Munich. If you have the 40 to 1 odds on this back in January, I'd have thought you hit your head. Nevertheless, here we are, at essentially halftime, with a 1-0 lead. We enter the Camp Nou with a quiet confidence that we can advance, provided we replicate the defensive prowess that helped keep Messi and Company at bay.
The same basic cast of characters, even if the formation is not identical to what we saw last week (Roberto used more of a 4-3-3 in keeping Barcelona out of the box). Needless to say, there were some absolutely outstanding individual performances last week. There was Ashley Cole rolling back the clock and reminding everyone of why he remains the quintessential left-back of choice. Gary Cahill and John Terry combined to form an air-tight unit in patrolling the gates. Petr Cech had an outstanding string of reflex saves that kept us in the game (I can only imagine his confidence is at an all-time high, which bodes very well for us). Elsewhere, Didier put in a yeoman's shift up top, while Frank and Obi combined to hustle Barcelona into lateral passing instead of forward progress. Effusive praise notwithstanding, we need more of the same tomorrow.
Everyone needs to be dialed in from the opening whistle. Roberto, accompanied by Petr for today's press conference, is saying all the right things. He's telling everyone that we need to go to battle with a more positive style than Wednesday suggested, and that a goal is clearly of the utmost importance. With only one loss in fourteen matches, Bobby seems to have a firm grasp on what works and what doesn't. Some argued in the wake of our success that our style was anti-football. I'd argue that it's pro-results. To beat Barcelona at their own game would be foolish- but to attack in bursts would be more optimal. Therefore, I'm anticipating much of the same, a hefty dose of long-ball, plenty of crunching tackles, and a defense so compact that the flanks are virtually free for all to roam. With Barcelona's distinct lack of size in the box, our defense should have no trouble on set pieces keeping them at bay.
Keys to Tomorrow:
- Keep it simple. Do the little things, fight hard in tackles, stay upright and use our height in defense.
- When in doubt, take the Didier route. Let it fly and let the Drogs go for it in the sky.
- Keep an eye on Leo. He's been too quiet for my liking up until now, and surely he has to break his duck against us soon. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if it happened tomorrow.
- In the box, everyone and their mother needs to keep their hands down and stay on their feet. No suspect penalties please. I'm looking at you, Gary.
- Win the 50/50 challenges, you win this game.
- Keep things even at the half, and we're going to be fine.
That's all I got for now friends. Join us tomorrow to rant it up. Carefree.