Barcelona’s technical superiority and ball manipulation meant Chelsea had to revert to lower Premier League tactics against the Catalan Giants.
Never mind whether Swiss referee Tom Henning Ovrebo had the cojones to make the big decisions, the Spanish press saw the away goal win as a victory for beauty against the beast.
Barcelona had more than the majority share of the possession in both legs while Chelsea had a modicum. And when Eric Abidal was sent off, it felt like an injustice. Not because it shouldn’t have been a red card (and it shouldn’t have), Chelsea sat back even with the advantage as if playing 11 v 11.
True, Chelsea were obliged to hold the lead while their opposition was a side who had just scored 100 goals in their league but with hefty long balls aimed towards Drogba, it was very much like watching Bolton.
At the Nou Camp, Guus Hiddink’s tactic was to limit Barcelona’s play as much as possible while looking to break quickly with Malouda and Lampard supporting his Ivorian forward. Except Barcelona limited Chelsea more than the Blues did to them. Apart from that one Drogba chance, Chelsea never go out of the bus as Barca’s pressure play proving too good.
However coming out of the tie, the press were all over Hiddink’s ‘tactical genius’ and even the ‘great one’ seemed embarrassed to talk about it. There was more than a hint of hypocrisy about it.
This was not Bolton Barcelona were trying to break down although it is likely they would have without much fuss, this was Chelsea. And the scene remained the almost the same at Stamford Bridge with a touch more controversy. Pep Guardiola’s side could have launched a few long balls into the box but stuck true to their principles of walking the ball into the net until the ninety third minute as Iniesta cracked an unstoppable shot into the top corner.
It does put some perspective into why Bolton play this way; the top four are streets ahead technically and in their ingenuity and Barcelona were too. Chelsea had their physical advantage to fall back on and the ability to alter intensity as displayed by their quickness in implementing a counter-attack.
The most intriguing stat is that Chelsea have played the least amount of long balls in the Premier League. Hiddink has made his side back to the efficient side we all know who control space fantastically. At the start of the season, under Felipe Scolari the club was the ball-hogging side which had the incisiveness and the movement which was too good for the ‘smaller clubs’ but lacked the penetration against the clubs higher up the table.
Time is running out for some of Chelsea’s men while their next opponents, Arsenal have much of their peak in front of them; Van Persie, Adebayor, Sagna, Eduardo, Rosicky and Arshavin while Fabregas and Nasri have been playing since their teens. With three matches remaining, the Gunners will be hoping to snatch third place but Wenger may also use the opportunity to hold an open audition for the central midfield position.
To come as close as the Gunners have come in the past two seasons in whatever front will have held the youngsters in good stead. But Arsenal are a special club and that makes disappointments easier to take. With fantastic football played every week, the team is so close to marrying both success and aesthetics under Arsene Wenger. A performance against Chelsea will surely reaffirm such ambitions.
Predicted Line Ups
Arsenal (4-4-1-1):Almunia – Sagna, Toure, Djourou, Eboue – Walcott, Fabregas (c), Denilson, Nasri – Van Persie, Adebayor
Subs:Fabianski, Silvestre, Gibbs, Song, Ramsey, Diaby, Vela, Bendtner
Chelsea (4-3-3):Cech – Bosingwa, Alex, Terry (c), A. Cole –Ballack, Essien, Lampard – Anelka, Drogba, Malouda
Subs:Hilario, Belleti, Ivanovic, Mikel, Kalou, Stoch, Di Santo, Mancienne