This is the weakest side that Roman Abramovich has ever sent out to soothe his Champions League craving and tonight they come up against one of the best teams in the history of football. Yes, it's Barcelona versus Chelsea, the clash of a club that is reaping the luscious fruit of years of painstaking talent hot-housing and the club that is desperately staving off the comeuppance of years of splurging pell-mell and hoping for the best. But that is not to say the result is a foregone conclusion. Because while Barça boast mobility, finesse and enterprise, Chelsea offer those qualities that we are told are possessed only by English, or English-inspired, people: PASSION AND BALLS AND BOTTLE (when they're in the mood). So it's tiki-taka v hurly-burly. Fancy dans v John Bull. Ball-hogs against war pigs. Chelsea may seldom touch the ball but when they get it, by George they shall hoof it. Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Stamford Bridge must be a wet Tuesday night in Stoke. And then, next week, Camp Nou must be a wet Tuesday night in Stoke. It's an order so tall that air traffic controllers are in a panic. Panic is good. Panic is Chelsea's friend. Panic is Chelsea's best chance of beating Barça. But not the sort of panic that Fernando Torres feels whenever he gets in sight of a goal, which is why Didier Drogba sensibly starts. From there on, Chelsea need madness to reign.
Chelsea: Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Meireles, Lampard; Ramires, Mata, Drogba
Subs: Turnbull, Essien, Torres, Malouda, Bonsingwa, Kalou, Sturridge
Barça: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Puyol, Adriano; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Alexis, Messi, Fabegas
Subs: Pinto, Piqué, Alcantara, Keita, Pedro, Bartra, Cuenca
Ref: F Brych (Germany)
"Just a quick note to say how much I admire your dedication to duty," intones Shane O'Leary. "I mean, the temptation to type Chelsea 0 Barcelona 4 and toddle off to the pub must be overwhelming. Unless you actually like bloodsports?" Actually, I happened to walk by a truck emitting toxic fumes just before I entered the bookies earlier today and wound up putting my hardly-earned cash on a 2-2 draw.
"I was going to say the team that lost to Monaco in 2004 was weaker than this lot," blurts Niall Mullen. "But looking at the line up it's pretty good actually, except maybe Mario Melchiot. 31-Marco Ambrosio; 15-Mario Melchiot, 6-Marcel Desailly, 26-John Terry, 18-Wayne Bridge; 30-Jesper Gronkjaer, 8-Frank Lampard, 19-Scott Parker, 4-Claude Makelele; 21-Hernan Crespo, 22-Eidur Gudjohnsen." Well done. But it would have been quicker to just type: "Paul, you're right. Again."
"There is no doubt that the idea of hoofing it forward against Barca for 180 minutes seems laughable," waaahs Prateek Chadha. "But looking at the teamsheets, I expect Drogba will be licking his chops at the prospect of an aerial duel versus the reinvented Mascherano..."
"Chuck Scott from New York here," announces, well, Chuch Scott from New York, as oposed to the Chuck Scott of Milton Keynes. Ah, good ol' Chuck. "Do Chelsea realise there's not a lick of pace on their side of the pitch? Perhaps Di Matteo has had the Bridge groundstaff perform a Milan and hope the entire Barca side turn their ankles." Chelsea are indeed very slow: it's the biggest shortocming of Meireles, for instance. Also, Mata, although he has fiendishly fast when it comes to trickery on the ball, covers ground slower than a gentleman's rebellious jacket.
The teams are on the pitch. Chelsea touched the ball a few times in their warm-up. When will they get it again? "One of the most impressive things about Messi I think is that despite being the best player on the planet, perhaps ever, you could still take him out of the Barça kit and put him in a cheap shiny grey suit and he'd still look just like a junior accountant, or perhaps a sales assistant at Dixons," drawls someone called Integra. "In that photo he's just giving his supervisor the thumbs up for having met another important sales target."
1 min: Chelsea fans, just like QPR ones when Swansea went to Loftus Road last week, boo the visitors for passing the ball around tidily.
77 seconds: Chelsea touch the ball for the first time! But only because Ivanovicc fouled Fabregas into mislaying a pass: freekick to Barça.
3 mins: Hoooooooof! Puyol doesn't know what to do with Cech's punt and Drogba is in! But he mis-controls the ball to allow it to roll back to Valdes. Still, hope for Chelsea. "Am I the only one who finds Chelsea's attempts at drumming up a pre match atmosphere as pathetic and everything that is wrong with the modern game," growls Paul Jaines. "They basically hand out a load of cheap blue and white flags and play a dull track in an attempt to recreate an Anfield-like atmoshphere - when all it comes across as is the horrible, corporate idea that it really is. If you have ever been at the stadium ahead of a Champions League game is really is one of the most embarrasing and degrading things."
5 min: Chelsea succeed in pestering Barcelona into coughing up the ball and then actually cobble together a three-pass move, before Cole is ushered out of play on the left.
7 min: More promising signs for Chelsea as Mascherano over-commits to a challenge on Drogba, who duly feints his way past him and makes to gallop from the half-way line towards the box. But Puyol bustles across to close him down.
8 min: Xavi dinks a freekick into the Chelsea box, which is an act of supreme optimism given the disparity in heights between the sides. Cech comes to claim the ball without even jumping. meanwhile, here's one from the Can't Get Over It department. "My problem is, I won't be happy until I see the moment when Frank Lampard turns to celebrate putting a goal in the back of Manuel Neuer's net," sobs Kevin Mannerings. "It has got so bad I am now hoping both Real and Barca get the chop and we see Chelsea v Bayern in the final. Seriously nuts, eh?"
9 min: CLOSE! Iniesta exchanged pass with Messi before dabbing a ball through to Sanchez, who had run free of Cole. As Cech hurtled out to meet him, Sanchez lifted it over the keeper ... and hit the bar!
10 min: That's the sort of goal-mouth stramash that Chelsea need to keep creating: a long throw-in provoked havoc in the Barça box and Terry nearly forced the ball over the line, but dani Alves did just enough to scramble it clear.
12 min: Terry impedes a run off the ball by Sanchez, who hurls himself to the ground as if taken out by a bazooka. After a stoppage to allow the Chilean to get pretend treatment, the game resumes.
14 min: Meireles is lucky to escape the booking that would exclude him from the second leg as he catches an opponent late for the second time in the game: he just isn't quick enough to get to the scene on time.
17 min: The game is being played at quite a sedate pace so far, largely because, you suspect, Chelsea don't have the dynamism to play otherwise and Barça are quite happy to probe leisurely. "You've had an email from an Integra [7.45pm]?" gasps Phil Sawyer. "Those Japanese cars get more sophisticated by the day. Who'd have thought the first evidence of the rise of the machines would be seen on the MBM? Although if all they're doing is lounging around watching football and sending emails in about Messi's resemblance to a salesman, I reckon the human race has got a good few years left yet."
18 min: Lucky Chelsea! Sloppy Fabregas! Barça picked their way through Chelsea in their own time before Messi pulled the ball back tio Fabregas, who simply had to boom it into the net from eight yards ... but he completely missed his kick, shanking it way wide.
19 min: After another long punt triggered disarray in the Barça box, the ball is scrambled out for a throw-in on the right. Ivanovic - the Serbia Delap - hurls it into the mixer, where more pandemonium breaks out before Mata slasshes an 18-yard shot high and wide. Whatever about up 'em, Barça really don''t like the ball over 'em: as we expected, the aerial route is Chelsea's most likely path the glory.
22 min: After yet more Barça probing, a chance for a Chelsea counter-attack is aborted by a misdirected pass from Meireles. "I must confess: I am perturbed," admits Don Mishill. "Scared too, maybe. Barça is an organism. They move as a whole. Its scary. They swarm, infiltrate and overcome you. Almost like the kind of government they claim to hate."
25 min: If you ever find yourself trapped in an elevator with someone, you'd better hope it Andres Iniesta: he is a master of wriggling out of tiny spaces, as he has just demonstrated to the perplexed Gary Cahill .... before going down in the Chelsea box: the ref waves play on but many officials would have signalled a penalty for that, as the defender did touch him with his arms. I, however, commend the ref for playing on as I am appalled by the increasingly common notion that contact in football necessarily equates to a foul.
28 min: A towering header by Messi from the edge of the box - is there anything he can't do? Well ,yes: score from a towering header from the edge of the box, on this occasion at least: Cech got down well to save.
29 min: "Am I the only one that thinks this may have been the night to give a run out to Torres in the hopes it may mark his return to form?" wonders Andrew Strickler. "That would be really something, have a terrible year, then score a hat trick against the best team in the world." It certainly would be something, but there is no reason for thinking it is a realistic, or even possible, outcome. Starting with Drogba made sense, as the Ivorian has shown when pogoing after the Chelsea punts into the box. It the only way that Chelsea have worried Barça so far.
32 min: Tony Pulis' team ... sorry, Roberto Di Matteo's team continue to chase the ball as Barça boss it. "French commentators are rightly comparing this Chel$ki performance to the Special One's Inter, it's shameful how they've parked the bus at home in a CL Semi-final first leg," howls Niall Sheering. As I recall, Inter beat Barça 3-1 in the CL semi-final first leg and did not park the bus until the second leg.
35 min: Puyol appears to have suffered a wrist injury. Wincing, he shows it to Terry ... but got no sympathy from the Chlesea captain, who squeezed his stricken arm, eliciting more wincing. Really, what was Puyol expecting Terry to do? "Re: your comment about Iniesta in the elevator on 25 mins," beings Chris Oquendo. "What good will that do since he'll get out and leave you in the lift?!" I like to think that once he extricated himself, he'd call the fire brigade to save me. You know how much footballers are concerned about the well-being of journalists.
38 min: Delapovic flings in another long throw. It's headed out as far as Meireles, who unleashes a volley from 20 yards. Blocked.
40 min: "I've never before in my life felt sorry for Didier Drogba, but he really seems like the only Chelsea player who cares about winning this match, and he looks to be playing every position save keeper," observes Jim Bach. And not entirely without reason: most of the other home players have been subdued, even cowed (though hardly because they don't care). Reckon Ramires, Cech and Terry belong to the exceptions too.
43 min: Messi on the run! Chelsea players converge on him and that leaves space for Fabregas, who is duly played in by the Argentinian maestro. Fabregas dinks the ball over Cech but not with enough power to reach the goal before Cole can welly the ball to safety.
44 min: Chelsea fans were signing "Same old Barça, always cheating" earlier on when Sanchez made a meal of a challenge by Terry ... but they have been awkwardly silent about Drogba, who has spent almost as much time rolling around the sodden grass as teenage lovers at Glastonbury (or whatever festival young hispters go to these days).
GOAL! Chelsea 1-0 Barça (Drogba 45') The Ivorian deserves it for his persistence and power (and not for his play-acting). And guess what? Chelsea started their counter-attack when none other than Lionel Messi gave the ball away on half-way. Once they reached rthe Barça box, Ramires sent a low cross into the area and the disorganised visiting defence allowed it to run to Drogba, whose low shot from 11 yards squirmed past Valdes and into the net.
Half-time: It hasn't been beautiful but Chelsea's plan has worked nearly perfectly so far, albeit because Fabregas has twice failed to convert straightforward chances. Barça will surely come out in the second half with even more attacking intent but their vulnerability to Chelsea's power on the counter means there could still be more scoring at either end.
"Fuelled as I am by cheap beer and peri peri fries, I have to say what I find the most worrying about this mbm is the disgust people have shown with Chelsea adopting a somewhat agricultural approach to the match," belches Andrew Washbrook. "They are playing a team that is quicker, slicker and a far greater attacking threat than anything they have faced this year. I think it is perfectly acceptable to park the bus and put any part of their anatatomy on the line to halt a Barca attack. It's a valid form of football, and while it would be nice to Chelsea go all gung-ho, it doesn't really work for them against Norwich, so why the hell would they try it against the best team in the world?" The ends are sure justifying the means at the mo.
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46 min: We're back. "I can't be alone surely in thinking that Barcelona and their ethos are ruining football," squawks John Norris. "Ever since their ascendency it would appear that their style of play has to be the epitome or new benchmark of how the game should be played. Not for me. Every move is seemingly whooped over and analysed as some cerebral majesty for which plebeians fans should aspire to comprehend. It is football as an intellectual exercise for university educated scruffs to wank over and anyone who does not unquestioningly applaud it is viewed as a Neanderthal. Someone to be pitied. Where is the passion? Where is the power? Where is the excitement? It's nowhere. And yet Barcelona way, we are told, is the only way. It's so dull and worthy." You certainly aren't the only one. Our friend Barney Ronay has been banging that drum for a while.
48 min: Chelsea's plan remains intact: they're keeping Barça at arm's length. After three minutes of possession, Barça eventually make room for a shot but Iniesta's effort is diverted behind by Ivanovic. "Fuelled as I am by bovril and pickled onions, Andrew Washbrook, Chelsea can do whatever they like within the laws to win the game," hollers Simon McMahon. "But With Cole, Terry and Lampard they will never be the popular choice where I come from at least (Dundee since you ask, home of the world famous Dundee United FC who incidentally have a 100% record against Barca in European competition - played 4 won 4). Beat that Chelsea! Or Man United, Real Madrid, Bayern, Inter..."
51 min: Adriano slinks his way past Lampard and then curls a decent effort at goal from 20 yards. Cech dives to push it away. "Chelsea have defended very well and Lampard's pass to Ramires for the goal was brilliant," enthuses George Trevers. "Everyone expected him to pass it down the line to drogba (the whole of the Barca defence did anyway) but he looked up and pinged a wonderfull crossball to Ramires in acres of space. I'd say it was Lampard who set up the goal."
53 min: Lampard's corner swirls into the box and eludes everyone - but, encouragingly for the hosts again, it was Chelsea players who came closest to connecting with it, as both Drogba and Terry narrowly missed. Another goal for Chelsea is certainly not out of the question here: this Barça defence is shaking like a willow in a hurricane.
55 min: Cahill was given a bit of a run-around in the first half but he did very well a moment ago to stretch out a leg and dispossess Iniesta just as everyone's favourite hypothetical elevator escapologist seemed set to shoot from 16 yards. "I'm afraid I am another of the anti-Barca brigade," naysays David Jerome. "Beautiful (boring) football sure, but their moral superiority is the most offensive. Their refusal to change the TV rights deal is responsible for the financial woes of many other clubs in Spain, differing from any Socialism i've ever heard of. down with Borecelona!"
56 min: Another bad miss by Barça! Fabregas scooped a nice pass over to Sanchez, who poked his shot wide from close range. Cole, in fairness, was applying pressure.
59 min: Ramires and Cole combine well down the left to put more pressure on Barcelona, but Dani Alves eventually snuffs the move out. "Re: John Norris' point [46 mins] about the Barca style - the thing is it is an incredibly successful style, and not many teams have found a way to counter it," purrs Mark Judd. "People drool over skill and precision as an aesthetic in most walks of life, and that is why we love to watch footballers from Matthews to Messi, it is what they bring to the game that mere mortals can't achieve."
62 min: Messi embarks on a slaloming run through Chelsea's heart, beating three ... before the increasingly composed Cahill nicks the ball off him. Cahill has really grown into this game.
64 min: Freekick to Barcelona on the edge of the area ... and the greatest player of all time drives it straight into the wall. They're frazzled, these lil' Barçabots.
66 min: Barceloan substitution: Sanchez off, Pedro Rodriguez on.
67 min: Drogba is down again, this time clasping his crotch, presumably because he's hurt somewhere and wants to comfort himself. Turns out Puyol did catch him with his heel.
69 min: Ramires booked for knocking down Messi at the edge of the area. A promising position for a freekick: can Messi avoid the wall this time?
70 min: Messi didn't take it - Xavi did. And he managed to avoid the wall ... but only by ballooning the ball high into the air. The fans in Row Z joyously express their appreciation for the souvenir.
71 min: Lampard floast in a freekick. Terry meets it but can't direct his header on goal. "Im confused," confesses Matt Dony. "On the one hand, I thoroughly appreciate the intricacies of tiki-taka and find Barca generally fascinating to watch (despite my lack of university education) but on the other hand, I still find their smug self-righteousness repellent, and I want to give each and every player a slap. Half on the 'Borecelona' bandwagon, and half running in the other direction. That's how I roll."
74 min: Chelsea substitution: Mata off, Kalou on.
76 min: Superb diagonal pass by Mascherano to Dani alves, whose cross is not up to the standard of what preceded it. Chelsea try to break quickly though Ramires, whose charges is curtailed by the cynical-as-ever Busquetrs. Which brings us to this email from Chris Bull: "I've seen it all now, Busquets complaining about Drogba diving!" chortles Chris.
78 min: It's Dani Alves' turn to take a freekick, this time from nigh-on 30 yards. Straight into the wall it goes.
79 min: Barcelona change: Fabregas off, having disappointed; Alcantara on.
80 min: More strong front play by Drogba to stretch the Barça defence ... but then he overhits his pass towards Kalou and the promise dies. "I've always said that Chelsea would pose a real threat to Barcelona," reveals Cecilia Marjakangas. "They are a very strong, physical, experienced and cunning team, and they are doing a fabulous job at the rainy Stamford Bridge. The Bridge is once again a fortress. I'm a Culé and love Barcelona, but I think that maybe Chelsea do deserve to win the CL this time. Maybe it'll be a Chelsea - Bayern final. Also, as soon as I read Dani Alves's silly comments, I thought Chelsea would win. Not only were they the best inspiration the blue team could ask for, they were also the kind of words that will always return to haunt the one who says them. That's one more reason why I love Pep's comments so much; he'd never disrespect an opponent. It's bad karma. Anyhow, an intriguing game. And I'd not begrudge the Chelsea old guard a CL crown. The main thing is that Mourinho doesn't win." Let's not get ahead of ourselves: there's still nine minutes to go here ... and 90 at the Nou Camp. Can Chelsea's be as stubborn again? And Barça as profligate?
84 min: Every Chelsea player is deep in his own half defending en masse. And defending well so far. But this is where we'll find out whether the scheduling of the FA Cup semi-final for last Sunday night has left them a tad drained.
85 min: more Drogba jostling spreads panic in the Barça defence and suddenly the ball bounces through to Kalou ... who can't keep his shot down.
86 min: Drogba, while battling back admirably, inadvertently catches Messi late and is punished with a yellow card.
87 min: Fine save by Cech! Messi curled in a freekick and Puyol met it with a clever back-header towards the far corner. Cech plunged to his right to push it behind for a corner.
89 min: Dani Alves attempts to twist his way into the box but Drogba, who has been excellent both in attack and defence, gets back to dispossess him. And then heads clear thje ensuing corner. "We love a bit of self flagellation in England, especially about the quality of our football and footballers, so I'd like to change the record for a second," announces Jaker Ahmed. "Ashley Cole has been flawless tonight, as good a display of full back play as you'll see."
90+2 min: Unbelievable! Another preposterous miss by Barça. After Terry poked the ball off Messi's foot with a brilliant tackle, Pedro curled a low shot against the post: it bounced out to Busquets ... who boomed his shot over from 10 yards!
Full-time: Chelsea showed courage, power and defensive defiance while Barcelona showed fragility at the back and uncharacteristic profligacy up front ... and lo, Chelsea take a 1-0 lead to the Nou Camp. Immense performances from Drogba, Cole, Ramires and Terry, plus a very accomplished one from Cahill after an unsettling start. They'll have to do it again next week. And before that they have the trifling matter of a league game against Arsenal. Mind you, Barça have to face Real Madrid and who knows how many of their players could be injured/suspended following that traditional farce?