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Champions League semi-final . . . and Torres scores! This was match that had everything as Chelsea’s 10-men slay Barcelona

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Ole! Fernando Torres comes off the bench to add a stunning final twist

Ole! Fernando Torres comes off the bench to add a stunning final twist

 

BY JOHN GUBBA

Football is the greatest game on the planet because you just never know when something magical is going to happen . . . and tonight’s epic Champions League encounter at the Nou Camp was one of those occasions that will go down in sporting folklore as a match that had just about every twist and turn you could possibly imagine.

For Chelsea’s heroes, who fought on against all the odds after skipper John Terry was sent off for a moment of madness when he inexplicably kicked out at Alexis Sanchez, it looked like mission impossible when the West London club fell 2-nil behind on the night.  Didier Drogba’s one goal advantage from the first leg was blown away in 10 minutes of meyhem at the end of the first half in Barcelona, as Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta struck either side of Terry’s red card.

It was a crazy spell punctuated on the stroke of half-time by a breakaway deliciously converted by Ramires – the Brazilian unfazed by the knowledge his earlier yellow card had ruled him out of the final. It was a mighty blow as powerful as Roy Keane’s in similar circumstances that dragged Manchester United back from the brink against Juventus back in 1999. That made it 2-2 on aggregate and put Chelsea ahead at the interval on the away goals rule. But it was far from the end of the breathtaking drama.

When the world’s best player Lionel Messi – who has never scored against Chelsea – smacked his 47th minute penalty against the crossbar after Drogba felled Cesc Fabregas, it was the start of another riveting half. Barca, with over 70 percent of the possession, came forward in wave after wave of attacks. But when they did find a way past the stubborn 10-men, a raking shot from Messi hit the post and then Alexis Sanchez had an effort ruled out for offside.

When Drogba made way for Fernando Torres I remember saying out load ‘If he comes on and scores the winner all his misses will be forgotten.’ It was a script you could not write and there was another lucky escape for Chelsea when they survived a handball that probably should have given Barca another penalty. But the official missed it and the ball immediately broke to Torres who was suddenly clean through on his own.

It was as if the Spaniard had been signed purely for this moment of destiny and this time there was never any doubt the player who has been guilty of so many shocking misses since he was signed from Liverpool for £40 million in January 2011 would seal the tie. As he effortlessly rounded Victor Valdes and steered the ball into the empty net, the man who had masterminded this remarkable sting, interim manager Roberto di Matteo, began his ecstatic victory celebrations on the touchline.

It was a scene that will be etched into many memories for generations to come. It was the day tactics and experience got the better of the team so many had put on a pedestal as arguably the greatest club side we have ever seen. But on this evidence Barca are not the masters we all thought – and even the magical Messi lost his aura of invincibility as he was brought to his knees by the team that lies sixth in the English Premier League.

FT: Barcelona 2-2 Chelsea (Chelsea win 3-2 on aggregate). Goals: Busquets 35, Iniesta 43 – Ramires 45+1, Torres 90+1

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Revenge? Roberto Di Matteo has restored lost pride – but Barcelona too good for Chelsea . . . and so are Real Madrid & Bayern Munich!

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Blues skipper John Terry is still launted by Barca's injury time winner in 2009

Blues skipper John Terry is still haunted by Barca's injury time winner from Andres Iniesta in 2009

BY JOHN GUBBA

Winning the Champions League has become an obsession for Roman Abramovich and Roberto Di Matteo has kept the Russian’s dream alive against all the odds by guiding Chelsea into a semi-final showdown with defending champions Barcelona. But the harsh reality is that the Blues are unlikely to feature in next season’s competition unless they go on to win the tournament – and in the final four they are the rank outsiders.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all have a touch of class a cut above the men from Stamford Bridge. Barca, in the semi-finals for the fifth successive season, are bidding to become the first side to successfully defend the European Cup since AC Milan in 1990 – and if they achieve that goal it will add weight to the argument that this is the greatest club side the beautiful game has ever seen.

But the beauty of the world’s most popular sport is you can never take anything for granted. And that is what makes Chelsea’s semi-final with the favourites so fascinating. It is a scenario that suits interim manager Di Matteo because the experts all agree they are the weakest team left in the competition, despite beating Benfica in both legs of their quarter-final.

http://youtu.be/FCGRyOJB6Ms

No one expects Chelsea to go any further and that is what gives  them a fighter’s chance of pulling off a shock because they have nothing to lose. The Blues will also remember how they took Barca to the brink the last time they met at this stage in 2009 and the Catalans were rescued by a last gasp winner after surviving a remarkable number of strong penalty appeals.

I still expect Lionel Messi and his team-mates to progress to the final. But do not be surprised if  Di Matteo’s men push Barcelona all the way in their two-legged contest for the right to play Real or Bayern in the Final in Munich’s Allianz Arena on 19 May.

FLASHBACK: Arguably Chelsea’s greatest European triumph came against Barcelona in 2005 when  John Terry’s header sealed a 5-4 aggregate win and sent the Blues into the last eight of the Champions League. It was the night. Chelsea raced into a three-goal lead in 19 minutes, with Eidur Gudjohnsen, Frank Lampard and Damien Duff on target for Jose Mourinho’s side. Barca pulled two goals back before half-time, Ronaldinho scoring from the spot after Paolo Ferreira handled. Then Ronaldinho  scored a stunning second. But Terry’s 75th minutes strike made it a decisive 4-2 win on the night.

http://youtu.be/gr2N2A_M_Bo

 

 You’ve got to admire Di Matteo – but success for Abramovich’s sack the manager policy would be bad for football

 

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You’ve got to admire Di Matteo – but success for Abramovich’s sack the manager policy would be bad for football

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Roberto Di Matteo left out Lampard, Drogba and Essien in Lisbon - and Chelsea won 1-0

Roberto Di Matteo left out Lampard, Drogba and Essien in Lisbon - and Chelsea won 1-0

BY JOHN GUBBA

Roberto Di Matteo is an excellent manager and against all the odds has done a terrific job since he was thrown into the Stamford Bridge firing line as interim manager. But it would be bad for football if Chelsea go any further in the Champions League.

The problem is success for the Blues will be interpreted by Roman Abramovich as justification for his ridiculous policy of sacking managers on a whim.

The suspicion is that the mega rich Russian owner does not respect the role of the manager because he thinks he knows better and gives silent approval to the player power influences that have undermined more than most recent failure Andre Villas-Boas.

Can you imagine the triumphalism of Abramovich if Fernando Torres was to score the winning goal in the Champions League Final? The crazy thing about football is that the impossible sometimes does come true. And Di Matteo’s men are in touching distance of reaching the final four after tonight’s first leg 1-0 win over Benfica in Lisbon.

But then of course there is the magical Lionel Messi and his brilliant Barcelona team mates who will surely be waiting in the semi-final unless Milan can pull off the shock of the tournament so far.

Di Matteo’s FA Cup Final goal against Middlesbrough in 1997 made him a Chelsea legend . . .

Roman Abramovich sacked Andre Villas-Boas because he fears failing to qualify for the Champions League

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BY JOHN GUBBA

Whether or not Roman Abramovich committed to ‘the project’ of re-building Chelsea’s ageing team when he recruited Andre Villas-Boas it was inevitable that the Russian billionaire with a reputation for losing patience would revert to form and sack his struggling manager because disaster is looming at the Bridge.

There is no escaping the fact that the 34-year-old Portuguese found the manager’s chair too hot to handle. And the harsh reality is that Chelsea are not only in danger of finishing the season without a trophy but the real fear is that the Blues will fail to qualify for the Champions League.

Just three wins in 12 matches is a crisis for a club that expects to win at least one trophy every season and qualify for Europe’s premier competition. The reality is that the Blues are in real danger of missing out on all fronts and failure to finish in the top four will be a disaster on a scale Abramovich has not yet experienced in his nine years as owner.

What became clear over the last few days is that AVB was looking and sounding like of a man out of his depth who has lost confidence in his ability and was being battered into submission by a hostile media and senior players who clearly did not respect him. Contrast the relationship between Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Villas-Boas with that between Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.

As former Manchester United skipper Gary Neville highlighted recently, experienced players in the twilight of their careers at Old Trafford know just how valuable they are to the team and the manager is the master at squeezing out the best from heroes who will give everything for the boss.

At Chelsea there was no chance of that happening under AVB and Abramovich faced a decision that could turn out to be the end of his love affair with the club if he has got it wrong.

Speaking after the 3-1 defeat at Napoli and before yesterday’s defeat by West Brom which leaves Chelsea 20 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, Villas-Boas admitted his own uncertainty when he said: ‘I think I have felt the confidence from Abramovich but the pattern of behaviour of the owner has led to a downfall (of coaches) in similar or even better situations.

‘What will be the reaction? It will be one of the two, a continuation of the project and full support or just the cultural pattern that has happened before. We don’t know.’

Now we do know that AVB was a dead man walking.  Roberto Di Matteo has been appointed caretaker manager and will be in charge for the FA Cup replay at Birmingham on Tuesday. But turning things round is a tall order for the ex-Chelsea star whose last job in management ironically ended in the sack at West Brom.

Abramovich has decided he could not risk Chelsea experiencing a slow death to the AVB Project. But it will be just as painful under Di Matteo if Chelsea fail to finish in the top four.