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Fri Apr 25 04:39:59 SAST 2014

Barca and Real both in danger of missing final

Steve Douglas, Sapa-AP | 19 April, 2012 11:330 Comments
(L-R) Lionel Messi, Xavi and Dani Alves of Barcelona react during their Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in London April 18, 2012
Image by: Albert Gea / REUTERS

It was being billed as the dream final in the Champions League: Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.

At this rate, however, neither of the Spanish giants will make it through to the May 19 showpiece in Munich.

A day after Madrid were beaten 2-1 at Bayern Munich in the first leg of their semifinal, Barcelona — and their star forward Lionel Messi — slumped to a 1-0 loss at Chelsea on Wednesday.

With 72% possession and 24 shots attempted, Barca’s players came away from Stamford Bridge shaking their heads wondering how they’d lost. Their hopes of becoming the first team to defend the Champions League hinge on overturning the deficit next Tuesday at the Camp Nou.

“Only winners are remembered,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said, when asked if his team had been “mugged.” 

“This game is about putting the ball into the net. And it’s the most difficult thing.” 

With Messi in the team, scoring hasn’t been much a problem this season.

The Argentina international’s current tally in all competitions stands at 63, four off the record set by German great Gerd Muller in the 1972-73 season. Yet, for once, he was subdued, often dropping too deep and being caught up in a clogged Chelsea midfield.

A prodigious defensive effort, particularly by centre backs Gary Cahill and John Terry, kept one of the world’s most fearsome attacking units at bay in the driving rain. When gaps were found, Alexis Sanchez and Pedro hit the goal frame and Cesc Fabregas had a shot cleared off the line.

At the other end, Chelsea had a deserving matchwinner in Didier Drogba.

With Chelsea’s only shot on target in the whole match, the 34-year-old Ivory Coast striker — in perhaps his last season at the London club — met a cross from Brazil midfielder Ramires in first-half stoppage time to score the only goal.

It was Drogba’s 38th Champions League goal — only Messi has scored more since the 2003-04 season — and capped a tireless display by the striker who was forced to live off scraps all night.

“Didi is all about these big nights, the big occasions. He put fear into the Spurs defense (in Chelsea’s FA Cup win) at the weekend and he did that again tonight,” Terry said.

Interim Chelsea manager Roberto Di Matteo spoke on the eve of the match about needing “two perfect matches” to get past Barca.

After a win and a clean sheet, one of them is out of the way but there is much work still to be done. Keeping Messi quiet for another 90 minutes at the Camp Nou will require a Herculean effort.

“Sometimes it feels like they have 20 players,” Di Matteo said.

"We watched Barcelona against AC Milan and Real Madrid, top European clubs, and they did exactly the same to them.

“They have a unique style of play, with quality players. They are the only team in the world who can do that.” 

Since replacing the fired Andre Villas-Boas at the start of last month, Di Matteo has turned Chelsea’s fortunes around, with 10 wins from 13 games. Drogba, Terry and Frank Lampard — fondly referred to as Chelsea’s “old guard” — have been key to that revival and were standout players against Barcelona, back to their best under a new manager who has restored harmony to the dressing room.

“In the past, a lot of people have had the opinion that our boys were over the line and too old to play at this level,” Di Matteo said. “They gave their answer on the pitch.” 

With a must-win “Clasico” against Real Madrid in the Spanish league to come on Saturday, three days before the return leg against Chelsea, Barca are facing up to the biggest week of their season.

Finishing the campaign without either of the La Liga or Champions League titles they won last season is now a real prospect.

“They’ll have 10 men behind the ball, they’ll defend, they’re stronger than us, they run, they jump more than us,” Guardiola said of Chelsea, who haven’t lost to Barcelona in their last six meetings.

“We have to try and take the game under control and discover a way of scoring the goals.” 

Barcelona’s last loss in the Champions League also came in London, a 2-1 defeat at Arsenal in February last year in the first leg of the last 16. On that occasion, Guardiola’s side also dominated the game yet squandered chance after chance before Messi’s brace of goals helped them over the line in the second leg.

With its increasingly resolute defense and hounding midfield, Chelsea should put up a much better fight than its city rival did that night.

“Nothing has been decided yet and we need to play another game like this one if we are going to get through,” Di Matteo said.

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