In a tale that is almost too fantastic for Hollywood, Chelsea beat defending champion Barcelona3-2 on aggregate Tuesday night. The clinching goal came from none other than much-maligned striker Fernando Torres. This eliminates the defending champion, and books the Blues a place in the Champions League Final. They await the winner of Wednesday’s Real Madrid–Bayern Munich match (live on FX at 2 p.m. ET).
The drama doesn’t stop there. On the road to victory, Chelsea overcame the loss of defender Gary Cahill to a hamstring injury in the 12th minute and the first-half sending off of defender John Terry for a childish and stupid foul. Barcelona also missed a penalty kick. The taker? Lionel Messi.
Unbelievable. Not even James Cameron could have sold this.
To quote the great Orson Welles, “It’s all true.” Tuesday night saw one of the greatest games in European Cup history and one of the most astonishing resurrections in all of sport.
Six weeks ago — hell, four months ago — Chelsea was left for dead. They had a striker who couldn’t score, a manager who couldn’t coach and a captain who couldn’t lead. The Blues were sulking in the Barclays Premier League like a bum in the gutter.
Now, the Blues are one game away from Europe’s biggest prize. Interim manager Roberto Di Matteo has pulled off a remarkable revival of epic proportions. Chelsea has a legitimate shot at hoisting the one prize that has tortured and eluded them in the Roman Abramovich era. Moreover, the Blues have what no one ever thought this immensely wealthy bunch could be: the lovable underdog tag.
How did Chelsea get here? How did it beat the consensus best team on the planet? How did it manage to put the chains on the greatest player in the world?
Chelsea looked to its past, and in doing so, found a way to make its future.
Exhibit A is Torres. In December, he was an outright disaster — and a punch line to every joke that began with, “What do you call a guy who can’t score?” The mere mention of Torres’ $80 million transfer fee had become slang for foolishness.
Mr. Torres earned every penny of that money back, grabbing the insurance goal on a stoppage-time breakaway with a slick finish around Barcelona’s Victor Valdes. Racing from the center circle, he dribbled past the keeper, made a delightful side-foot home and then raised his hands to the sky.
Exhibit B is Ramires. The young Brazilian midfielder looked like he was heading for a Stamford Bridge exit six months ago. No one doubted his talent, but many saw the lack of polish and the inability to keep a cool head in big games. Over the past three games, he’s been a rock, and he scored Tuesday’s clutch goal after putting in yet another strong defensive shift. His Messi-esque chip over Valdes at the end of the first half was from a superb service from another man thought out the door: Frank Lampard.
Exhibit C is Di Matteo himself. Once thought to be a mere doorstop, he’s proved that he can get his players to perform under pressure. He shrewdly has them playing in tightly defined roles that are designed to limit risk and maximize their gifts. He’s also shown a willingness to reach back to his Chelsea past, as his tactics tonight were right out of the Jose Mourinho playbook. His players denied Barcelona down the gut, parked the bus and forced the Barca players to shoot at a cluttered, crowded center.
Even the wildest fantasy movies have a second act, and so it was for a Chelsea side that also had to overcome some self-inflicted wounds.
The Blues could do nothing about Cahill’s hamstring injury early in the match, but they privately will be furious over the behavior of the man who wears their armband. Terry’s sending off — for kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the back and off the ball — is just the latest in a series of self-destructive moments.
Terry has become a tiresome presence, always provoking, and never owning up to the consequences. During the second half, Terry apparently tearfully told to a TV reporter that he was wholly innocent, despite the evidence fans around the world had seen in slow-motion replay. It was the worst attempt to evade responsibility since Metta World Peace’s feeble interview after viciously elbowing Oklahoma City Thunder forward James Harden.
Terry is now out of the final, and it’s hard to argue that Chelsea will really miss him. With him off the field, Chelsea remained resilient, organized and solid — perhaps putting the lie to the thought that without him as its general, the team cannot prosper.
There was one more obstacle to overcome, and it came at the feet of Didier Drogba. A striker’s challenge — and a bit of a flop from Cesc Fabregas — gave Lionel Messi a gift penalty-kick attempt early in the second half. Messi, on 63 goals already this season, had only Petr Cech to beat. Instead, he hit the crossbar, and with that came the dénouement.
Barcelona, it must be said, looked tired and predictable. It has been on a remarkable run and has achieved so much over the past two seasons. Yet on Tuesday night, Barca seemed unable to fashion its own revisions and think outside of its passing, passing game.
Chelsea will go to the final in weak shape. Along with Terry’s suspension, Branislav Ivanovic, Raul Meireles and Ramires are all ineligible. It is also unclear how bad Cahill’s hamstring injury truly is at the moment. Chelsea also faces a fight to try to secure a top-four slot in the Premier League, which would guarantee at least a playoff to get into Europe should it fail to take the Cup in Munich.
But those are thoughts for another day. Tuesday night, in the top tier of Camp Nou, the blue-clad faithful danced as the Catalans wondered where it had all gone wrong. It sounds like a fairy tale. Perhaps, this year, it is.