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Apr 2012

The second match in the first legs for the teams looking to get to the UEFA Champions League Final in Munich also did not disappoint. As happened 24 hours earlier, last night’s match in London was hard-fought, tremendously disputed, with one very dominant but with only one winner. And it at least showed there is truth in the maxim that a victory has to be worked for. Chelsea won because they converted one of the few chances they had. And Barca lost for precisely the opposite, because they couldn’t score from one of the many chances they created. That’s football. Let’s see what happened.

Chelsea 1 - Barcelona 0

At Stamford Bridge, they were eagerly awaiting FC Barcelona. The Chelsea players’ messages before the game were positive, you could see they were concentrated and they gave the impression that they knew what they had to do. But even so, they respected the opposition, very much so, and it showed throughout the whole game.

Nobody has won the Champions League two years on the trot and many people were hoping that this Barcelona team would be the first to do it because of the extraordinary quality of their players which made them favourites. Nevertheless, we will have to wait for what happens in the Nou Camp to know who will get to the final. And 1-0 is very, very dangerous. An away goal for the Blues will mean Barca will have to score 3 to go through automatically. And we know that it will not be easy to control every one of Chelsea’s counter attacks in Barcelona.

From the start, Chelsea had a system of 1-4-3-3 which really became 1-4-5-1 because the wide players were dropped deep to help out in defence. Even Drogba was helping his midfield for large parts of the game to block the way to goal.

Barcelona, on the other hand, went with their usual 1-4-3-3, giving a lot of freedom to Messi who rarely played as a centre forward and to Fabregas who tried to use the little space between the defensive lines of the home team.

Chelsea knew straightaway what the game was going to be like, what the script was. Barcelona would have the ball and they would have to counter attack and look to play long balls or use set plays, the archetypal English game, to try to surprise the Catalan defence. There was no other choice, they had to use these 3 options.

It was rare to see them try to play out from the back, and when they did, Barcelona’s pressing forced them to go back to Cech and play long for Drogba in the middle or Ivanovic wide. They then looked for the second ball to play from there.

The other two weapons the London team tried to use were the set plays, long throws from Ivanovic, corners or free kicks, along with the occasional counter attack they could muster.

The goal came from one such counter attack which in the end was decisive. Messi tried to beat Lampard in midfield but he won the ball and played long for Ramires to run in to space and run with the ball in to the box. He then played a square ball to Drogba who was free because both centre backs were trying to stop the Brazilian and it left Drogba on his own and he made it 1-0, which gave hope and confidence to his side for the next game in the Nou Camp.

It all may have been different if Alexis Sanchez had scored instead of hitting the bar in the first few minutes when he ran behind the defence. But football is fickle like that and this incident will be remembered all week, or even longer depending on the result of the second leg.

Barcelona assumed the role of favourite, they had possession of the ball from the first minute (72%, with 223 successful passes for Chelsea to 843 for Barcelona, one corner for Chelsea to 8 for the Catalan team, 4 shots for the Blues to 19 for Barca and 70% of Barcelona's passes were in the opposition half - Stats supplied by Opta). However, this is what makes football different to other sports and all stats or data must be used in the appropriate context.

Summary of the game is simple. Chelsea defended with 10 or even 11 men behind the ball, with the defence deep most of the time and looked to regain and counter when they could. Barca, though, looked to penetrate this human barricade, without much success most of the time, as they insisted on trying to go through the middle.

When they did try to go round the outside and were in a good position to cross, there were so many players in the area that it was not really worth crossing.

Except for the start of the game, there generally wasn’t space behind the Londoners’ defence and it was difficult to create chances, except for a couple of times for Fabregas and the aforementioned chance for Alexis Sanchez in the first few minutes. In addition the midfield line of up to 5 players were dropping even closer to their back four and there was hardly any space to play easily between lines. Messi was dropping deep to initiate play from there and Fabregas was trying to use the space he left to receive a penetrating pass.

This was how the first half passed, with a Fabregas shot that Ashley Cole kicked off the line as the most dangerous, a header from some distance, though it was met well, by Messi but little else as far as dangerous moments are concerned.

The second half, with the score at 1-0, meant that the same ideas for strategy were re-inforced. Chelsea defended even more if that were possible, to come out on the counter attack or use a set play, whilst Barcelona dominated the game, having possession and with Xavi orchestrating looking for a way to work Cech.

As the game wore on, Messi tried more determinedly to unbalance the defence with his individual play but he had little success due to the number of defenders surrounding him. He at least won a couple of free kicks on the edge of the box, but they were not dangerous either.

Barca did not really create many chances. Adriano, in an individual move, finished with a dangerous shot after 52 minutes.

Shortly after, on 56 minutes, Alexis Sanchez had another good chance from a Fabregas pass in the only possible way, over the top, giving the Chilean a 1v1 with the goalkeeper, but pressure from Ashley Cole made him put the ball wide.

Guardiola then made changes, looking for fresh legs and more penetration wide. First with Pedro and then with Cuenca, and later, looking for play between lines with Thiago. Nothing seemed to work, Messi kept trying his dribbles but to no effect.

Di Matteo tried to stop it by using Kalou and Bosingwa to protect the lead.

The biggest chance came in the last few minutes, 86th minute to be precise. Puyol diverted a free kick by Messi and Cech made the save of the evening.

A bit later, after 92 minutes, Messi found Busquets forward and he back-heeled a return pass, but just as Messi was about to shoot, Terry intercepted and the ball fell to Pedro who shot against the post.

As we said, in football stats are important. But the most important one is the one on the scoreboard at the end and in this case it showed a Chelsea win against Barcelona by the smallest of margins but a win nevertheless, and with a dangerous scoreline for the second leg which will be exciting just like the other semi in the Santiago Bernabeu.