Barcelona had the more accomplished players against Chelsea but Roberto Di Matteo's 'perfect game' was essentially ugly but effective
Cesc Fábregas may have had a point. The former Arsenal midfielder had suggested on the eve of this game that Chelsea had reverted to type, feeding off the scraps provided by longer balls aimed at Didier Drogba. Roberto Di Matteo had disagreed, but the hosts' urgency here was clearly born of a direct approach that extended even to Branislav Ivanovic flinging throw-ins into the six-yard box to provoke panic as if mimicking Stoke's early days back in the Premier League. They served to unsettle when the hosts could wrest back the ball – Barcelona clearly boasted the more accomplished players, but they rarely looked as if they were enjoying a scrap of an occasion – meaning the "perfect game" Di Matteo had craved was essentially rather ugly but always prone to be effective
Back in 2009 the home side had torn into these opponents early. This time they snapped into challenges, hassled and harried, and flung themselves into challenges in an attempt to stifle Barcelona's slick possession. Ramires, operating on the left presumably to nullify Dani Alves, was his usual bundle of energy. Raul Meireles, unsettling Sergio Busquets when he could, and Frank Lampard were a blur of tackles, the latter backing up his prematch assertion that Chelsea had to exert "pressure all over the pitch". Even Juan Mata busied himself with unfamiliar duties, his team-mates happiest when they ensured Barça confronted a massed bank of blue and the inter-changes ran aground. The work-rate was admirable.
The visitors, inevitably, still squeezed out opportunities and Chelsea relied upon the excellent Petr Cech, operating almost as a sweeper, reading the through-balls perfectly and saving well from Fábregas, Adriano, Lionel Messi, Alexis Sánchez and Andrés Iniesta, with his defenders bailing him out when he was by-passed. Ashley Cole, as he so often does, scurried round to clear one Fábregas clip from the goal-line and was outstanding. For a player hampered by an ankle complaint, he is a phenomenon. Gary Cahill, who has spent most of this season near the foot of the Premier League with Bolton Wanderers, rose to the occasion admirably.
Didier Drogba had been preferred to Fernando Torres – a player with a fine personal record against Barça – from the start and seemed to spend much of his time prone on the ground with his face buried in the turf, as if the succession of back, head, thigh and, well, 'groin' complaints which required the trainer was a tactic to disrupt the visitors' rhythm. The Spaniards were duly infuriated. As it turned out, he proved himself to be this team's Gordon Greenidge, a player always at his most dangerous once a limp had clicked in. His finish in first-half stoppage time, from Chelsea's first shot on target, was scruffy but sparked the tie. There was no hint of an injury as he wheeled away in celebration.
....albeit probably for less than a week. The Argentinian had come into this contest with 63 goals to his name this season, initially only one fewer than the entire Chelsea starting XI combined. He cannot enjoy playing against the clutter that Chelsea continually fling at him, but he still managed to wriggle his way into scoring opportunities and even muscled Mikel John Obi from possession to set up Fábregas's best first-half opportunity. Watching Chelsea players track him at pace, desperately seeking a split second sight of the ball to nick a challenge, became a feature. Yet it was Messi's attempt at a nutmeg that ended up fuelling Chelsea's rat-a-tat upfield for the opening goal, and that will have stung his pride. Arsenal have paid at the Camp Nou when they thought they had Messi's number. Chelsea must guard against a repeat.