Considering all the factors – the teams’ recent history, Chelsea’s massive first-leg upset – this match had the potential to be truly legendary, and it definitely lived up to expectations.
Both teams came into this match on the back of domestic league setbacks: Barcelona had lost to arch-rivals Real Madrid at home and had virtually lost the league title in the process, while a much-changed Chelsea team had drawn with London rivals Arsenal which didn’t help Roberto Di Matteo’s men in their pursuit of 4th place.
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola made some changes from both the earlier games against Real and Chelsea as expected, but the formation and personnel selection surprised some as well. Gerard Pique returned to the starting line-up as expected ahead of Adriano, while youngster Isaac Cuenca was chosen over fellow young wide player Cristian Tello. Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas were both included in the line-up as well, while wide man Dani Alves was the surprise omission.
On Chelsea’s side, there were no surprises at all as Di Matteo reverted to his original line-up from their first-leg encounter, and attempted to stick to the same ‘park-the-bus’ tactics with his 4-5-1 shape.
Barcelona’s 3-4-3 was similar to how they played in their 1-2 loss against Real over the weekend, but Guardiola had attempted to address the problems – width and aerial weaknesses in both attack and defence – in this match. Alves was left on the bench after his ineffective performance in a high offensive role against Real, and Cuenca, a much more natural wide attacker was chosen in his place.
Guardiola’s choice of 3 defenders indicated his decision to forgo defensive width, a slightly understandable decision considering how Chelsea sat back so much – although when the English side attacked they did attack down the flanks, which cost Barcelona dearly (more on that later). Guardiola also recalled Pique, a recognition of his team’s aerial weakness.
The plan was simple: score goals. Sanchez’s horizontal running was missed against Real – in that game he helped create and score a goal instantly after coming on as a substitute – and here he played as the primary striker. Lionel Messi played as a central playmaker rather than in the false nine role where he has thrived in in the past. Cuenca was out on the right wing, with Andres Iniesta cutting in as usual from the left. Fabregas played in an attacking midfield position, floating behind/beside Sanchez.
All these attacking players were chosen in this particular formation because Guardiola felt it offered his team the most number of avenues to attack Chelsea: Sanchez’s mobility high across the field, Messi’s obvious danger from deep, Cuenca’s width, Fabregas’ direct play and Iniesta’s trickery. As always, in theory and on paper, it made sense from Barcelona’s offensive perspective.
As usual, Barcelona’s problem was their insistence on playing through the middle. Cuenca was their only true wide player in the first-half, and though he couldn’t get past his opposite defender when attempting to dribble past him (just 1 successful dribble), Guardiola seemed to once again play him in a functional role: Cuenca was meant to stretch the play and thus create space in the middle for the likes of Fabregas and Messi. In that sense, Cuenca did a satisfactory job out wide, although perhaps he could’ve attempted quicker passes and more one-twos – if only to distract and drag his fullback out of position.
Barcelona’s general play was strikingly similar to their first-leg match against Chelsea: their best chances often came from wide areas, and from robbing Chelsea’s midfielders off the ball to skip Chelsea’s first layer of defence.
Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech saw Messi shoot into his side netting from the right channel after Sanchez and Messi exchanged quick-fire passes and the former Udinese forward had slipped the Argentine through in the 2nd minute. Iniesta’s lofted cross from the left 7 minutes later had Ashley Cole scrambling to clear it. Furthermore, Barcelona’s first goal in the 35th minute arrived via Cuenca’s cut back into the box for Sergio Busquets to redeem himself for his terrible, last-minute miss from the first-leg at Stamford Bridge by scoring the opener in this match.
Messi’s penalty that hit the crossbar also came from a wide area when Didier Drogba brought Fabregas down relatively wide on the right, and Cech produced a save in response to Cuenca’s decent shot from Barcelona’s left flank in the 61st minute. Even Barcelona’s 81st minute ‘goal’ that was correctly ruled offside came from Alves’ low cross from the right wing.
Barcelona’s second goal came from them gaining possession in midfield and bypassing Chelsea’s midfield: Busquets intercepted the ball after Raul Meireles’ poor control, sending Messi on a tearing run beyond Chelsea’s midfielders and straight onto their defenders, before Messi passed the ball onto Iniesta to stroke the ball into the net.
The only time Barcelona successfully carved an opening through the middle was in the 18th minute when Sanchez, Fabregas and Messi combined through some rapid, intricate passing only for the latter to see his shot saved by Cech.
The number of opportunities Barcelona created through the wide areas, regardless of the quality of the chances because those were almost all the chances they created, makes one wonder why Guardiola’s side didn’t try to attack down the flanks more often. Guardiola did do the right thing after John Terry’s ugly dismissal: he pushed Alves, who had come on for the injured Pique, further up the field on the right and switched Cuenca over to the left side. This was an attempt to stretch Chelsea’s defence: the right thing to do when dominating possession and seeking a goal, especially against 10 men.
Despite this tactical move, Barcelona continued to try and force their way through the middle of Chelsea’s 2 narrow layers of midfielders and then defenders. They pushed up so high in the second-half that Carles Puyol was actually playing as a central midfielder close to Chelsea’s penalty area alongside Xavi, and Javier Mascherano was just beyond the halfway line like a regular defensive midfielder – he was the closest player to goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
It’s important to realise that the only other significant chances Barcelona created after Messi’s penalty – apart from that offside goal – were efforts from range late in the game: Busquets shot over after a loose ball fell to him, while Messi hit Cech’s left post. This was an indication of Chelsea’s incredible defensive team unit, as well as Barcelona looking tired, leggy and well out of ideas.
It’s also interesting that Chelsea’s crucial goal came almost immediately after Barcelona had scored – just like how Ronaldo’s goal against Barcelona arrived seconds after Sanchez had equalised – do Barcelona’s players switch off after scoring?
There isn’t too much to say about Chelsea’s tactics because just like Barcelona’s, it was simple: defend. Di Matteo didn’t alter his tactics from the first-leg at all, and Chelsea happily let Barcelona come at them. The team from London replicated their 4-5-1 set-up: Drogba in a normal central midfield position when defending, followed by a bank of 5 midfielders and then a wall of 4 defenders, all narrow and tight.
Bar Gary Cahill’s unfortunate injury, Chelsea were looking pretty comfortable until Barcelona scored the opening goal, and then looked a complete mess in the 8 minutes that followed it. Terry got himself deservedly sent off for a bluntly stupid and disgusting knee into the back of Sanchez 2 minutes after conceding the first goal, causing all sorts of chaos in Chelsea’s shape.
The Chelsea players seemed confused about their roles and responsibilities after Terry’s dismissal, with Cahill’s replacement right-back Jose Bosingwa unsure of whether he was supposed to fill Terry’s central defence position. Defensive midfield anchorman John Obi Mikel filled that role as Barcelona took full advantage of Chelsea’s organisational disarray to score a second goal.
Eventually, Bosingwa did shift into central defence, with midfielder Ramires retreating to right-back. Chelsea had lost their original centre-back pairing, and now had just one defender in his natural position (left-back Cole). Di Matteo’s side looked doomed from this moment on, with Barcelona holding a 2-1 aggregate lead and his players all out of position.
However, Chelsea fought back 2 minutes after Iniesta’s goal through a stunning effort from Ramires, elegantly chipping the ball over Valdes after feeding Lampard on the right and receiving the defence-splitting return himself. Barcelona’s weakness on the flanks was exploited for the 3rd time in 3 matches – Drogba’s goal in the first-leg, Ronaldo’s winner over the weekend and now Ramires’ goal were all from lightning speed breakaways, and their assists all came from wide areas.
Just like in the first-leg, Ramires and Frank Lampard were involved in Chelsea’s goal, and just like in the first-leg, the timing of the goal was great as it allowed Chelsea to continue defending and not take any risks.
Chelsea’s other offensive tactic was to hit long balls, and Cech played 19 of them as he searched out Drogba in Barcelona’s half. Even after Pique’s departure, Barcelona’s defenders didn’t look as shaky as they did in the first-leg, but Drogba’s presence was certainly something they had to constantly look out for.
In the second-half though, as a result of being down to 10 men, Drogba was pulled back to play as a midfielder because Di Matteo wanted to continue playing with a midfield bank of 5. This effectively left Chelsea playing a 4-5-0 throughout the second-half, without a striker upfront to help hold up the ball and relieve the incessant Catalan pressure. Chelsea had gone into ultimate defensive mode and Di Matteo was rewarded for his tactical decision because Chelsea were actually very comfortable in the 40-odd minutes after Messi had missed that penalty.
Fernando Torres’ late goal sealed the tie after he pounced on a clearance (despite being behind Barcelona’s last defender he wasn’t offside because he was in his own half, and was only in that position because he had failed in a dribble) and easily rounded Valdes to put the ball into an empty net.
Any team that beats Barcelona has to put in more than their fair share of defensive work, be it tackles or interceptions or effectively clearing the ball, and Chelsea were no different as illustrated below.
Individual defensive heroics, such as last-gasp tackles or a goalkeeper playing a blinder, are easily recognised and praised. Defensive team efforts on the other hand, are less easily recognised, but they definitely deserve much more credit than they get.
Chelsea as a team, produced a defensive masterclass that was reminiscent of former manager Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan side that eliminated Barcelona from the Champions League semi-finals in 2010, and Di Matteo and his players should receive plenty of acclaim for this display. Sure, they had to rely on Barcelona misfiring again, but with such a makeshift back 4 and down to 10 men, reducing the world’s most devastating attacking team to so few real chances required a herculean effort from all the coaching and playing staff. Chelsea’s defensive organisation, structure and discipline should not be overlooked.
Di Matteo now has 2 cup finals to look forward to, helping spark a massive turnaround in Chelsea’s initially disastrous-looking season. The only downside is that Chelsea will be missing 4 players in the Champions League final in Munich: Branislav Ivanovic, Meireles, Ramires and Terry. Nonetheless, no matter what happens in the remainder of the season and beyond, Di Matteo can surely look back at this season with fond memories and much pride.
It seems like a huge knee-jerk reaction to say that this defeat – when was the last time Barcelona lost 3 consecutive matches? – represents the end of a cycle for Guardiola’s all-conquering team. But looking at their past 3 matches – huge games where they have failed to step up – Barcelona look tired, bereft of ideas, and lacking a cutting edge. They definitely need to be much more clinical in the King’s Cup – the only trophy they have left to play for this season.
Despite their incredible 82% possession, they couldn’t do enough to go through to the final. Xavi himself made 66 more successful passes than the entire Chelsea team put together – such was their overwhelming domination of the ball – but possession counts for little if there are no tangible results. Although Barcelona had chances which they missed – Messi’s penalty the most glaring one – perhaps what was most flagrant was that after the penalty, while Barcelona had control of the ball, Chelsea seemed in control of the match.
There was a backup plan, but Guardiola’s attempt to stretch their play wide was only limitedly successful because of his side’s almost stubborn insistence to play through the middle. The other more obvious backup plan in the towering form of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was thrown away 2 years ago, while the absence of a world-class striker like the injured David Villa or the departed Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o has been telling in the past few weeks.
Guardiola’s nearly fanatical attempt to squeeze in as many midfielders as possible into his team – only Pique and Puyol are natural defenders and there are no natural strikers besides Villa – seems to require slight tweaking at the minimum. The difference was so close of course – had Messi converted the penalty etc – but the truth is that football is full of what-if moments. The other truth is that no team is invincible, and this relatively barren season shouldn’t detract what a thoroughly brilliant job Guardiola has done over the years. There is no other team like Barcelona, possibly in history, who force the opposition to play on their terms no matter what.
Guardiola’s outstanding managerial trait has always been his vision: his ability to see that his team requires constant evolution and the amazing variety of formations and tactical twinges his side are able to adapt to. In essence, Barcelona do have more than a Plan A; they also have a Plan B and Plan C and so on: just look at the different tactical set-ups Guardiola has imposed on his side. From Messi evolving to a false 9, to Alves on the right wing, to playing with 3 defenders, to Busquets’ role in midfield and defence.
The real issue is that these plans are based around Barcelona’s identity of possession football and the nuances in their play haven’t been enough to retain the league title and the Champions League this season.
Now, does Guardiola have to rethink his philosophy slightly and build another team by evolving his current one, or is Barcelona’s recent lethargy a reflection of their manager? At least the Barcelona fans know what they want.