Chelsea, Barcelona too good to fail

BY Jamie Trecker • September 19, 2012

Chelsea began their title defense with a stutter while Barcelona showed resilience as the Champions League rounded out the first day of Group Stage play. Lionel Messi was the hero for Barcelona yet again while the Old Lady from Turin showed that their experience at this level more than makes up for a lack of bold-face names.

At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea trotted out the trophy pre-game and was off to a dream start. Young Brazilian Oscar turned in a Hollywood performance by scoring two goals in two minutes, the latter of which has to be an early contender for goal of the tourney. The Blues appeared to be cruising, with Juventus looking less like Italian champions and more like cannon fodder in the early going. Eden Hazard’s invention and a raucous London crowd seemed to be enough to hold on to the points.

You know where this is going. It was not, and Roberto Di Matteo has to confront the same truth that his counterpart at Manchester’s City did Tuesday night: experience counts in Europe.

If Chelsea thought they were going to have an easy ride to the knockout stages, they are going to have to think again. Despite being in a soft group with the likes of Shakhtar and Nordsjaelland, they are sitting in third place after a late collapse allowed a gritty and wholly deserving Juventus to exploit a saggy midfield for a 2-2 draw.

Claudio Marchisio was the man of the match for Juventus, proving simply too much for Chelsea’s midfield to handle. Time and time again he found himself in dangerous areas, usually because of blown coverage. He first tested Petr Cech after he beat the offside trap and was, in truth wasteful, but it was a harbinger. John Terry would attempt to play the trap on Fabio Quagliarella to devastating effect.

The Blues look to be a much-improved side and there is no arguing with the talent at their disposal. Oscar looks the real deal and his strike to the top right corner, effortlessly beating Gigi Buffon, will have won the hearts of fans worldwide. Hazard remains the early favorite for best acquisition of the year: he is a constant threat and his vision is impeccable.

But Chelsea lacked the ability to close out the game, and even a sub-standard performance from Andrea Pirlo proved to be no hindrance. Marchisio stripped John Obi Mikel, ghosted past several defenders, and in the end, it were Juventus left to rue a shot off the top of the crossbar, a floater that Cech was helpless to stop.

Barcelona was in a far different pickle: they were unexpectedly down to Spartak Moscow in their own Camp Nou courtesy of two bad mistakes. And yet, look at the standings and there you have it: Barcelona is atop the group, perfect, and gazing down at a field that includes Benfica and Celtic.

That game was almost the mirror-world version of Chelsea’s. Where the Blues got inspiration from a young man, Barcelona almost had to overcome a lackluster game by their talisman. Of course, a poor game for Lionel Messi is akin to an excellent one for most other players, and he would take his team all the way back to a 3-2 win. Was it deserved? Arguable. But did it demonstrate the experience and resilience that Barcelona possess? Absolutely.

Dani Alves scored one of the finer goals of the round, unfortunately into his own net. That got Barcelona into a jam that Romulo deepened on the hour mark, capitalizing on a counter. Suddenly, Barcelona were trailing 2-1, Tello’s early goal a distant memory and the Camp Nou crowd was starting to shift nervously in its seat.

Spartak, however, is not the category killer they were in the Soviet era. This is not the homogenous team that pushed Real Madrid and Marseille in their glory years. Instead, it is a polyglot group that is learning to play as a unit, and Wednesday night it was clear they did not believe they could pull off the upset.

Messi’s equalizer was no thing of beauty, a simple tap-in from service from Tello after Aiden McGeady flat-out blew the coverage on the endline. But his winner, a sharp header off a ball from Alexis Sanchez, was a rare moment of class in an otherwise anonymous game for the Argentine maestro.

Both Chelsea and Barcelona will make the next rounds – they are simply too good to flop at this hurdle. There are other teams — Celtic, Manchester City and Valencia — who look like they have a great deal more to prove. But Oscar and Messi are object lessons. One had a superior game tossed away, the other overcame a dismal outing to win.

Experience counts.