Roberto Di Matteo praised his players for summoning a truly "incredible" fightback to eject the holders, Barcelona, from the Champions League and force passage into next month's final in Munich despite the first‑half dismissal of their captain, John Terry.
Chelsea trailed Barcelona by two goals as half-time approached here as they struggled to reorganise following the fifth sending‑off of Terry's club career for a petulant knee in the back of Alexis Sánchez. The centre-half issued an apology for his rush of blood but Ramires, who recovered one of the goals in what time remained before the break, Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanovic will also miss the final on 19 May through suspension after picking up their third yellow cards of the tournament on Tuesday night.
Yet they and Chelsea's rejigged rearguard excelled in ensuring the visitors somehow survived a second‑half barrage from the hosts, with a ninth Chelsea goal from Fernando Torres, plundered in stoppage time, ensuring improbable progress. "I'm just delighted for the players, who deserve this moment," said Di Matteo, whose brief period as interim first-team coach has yielded Champions League and FA Cup final appearances. "They put so much effort in out there and they deserve to be in the final.
"We were playing the best team in the world – they're amazing – and we were up against all the difficulties you could imagine in any football match. We seemed always to find some reserves from somewhere, playing against the odds. The way we played and defended … we just showed a lot of desire to reach the final and go through. We had a little bit of luck as well, which we needed. But to win the trophy, you need that. We've had a difficult season but we seem to always get something special out when we need to. I think that's part of the DNA of these players. It's quite incredible."
Terry will be denied an opportunity to make amends for his penalty miss in the 2008 final in Moscow following his red card for the off-the-ball incident. "I've seen the replay and it does look bad," said the centre-half. "I'm not that type of player to intentionally hurt anyone. I've raised my knee, which I maybe shouldn't have done in hindsight. But hopefully people who know me as a person, as a player, [know] I'm not that type of player.
"I'm disappointed but delighted for the lads. To come here and play the way they did and get the result they did with 10 men … I feel I've let them down. I've apologised to them and I want to apologise to the fans as well. At the time I was bewildered because I was trying to protect myself a little bit, but looking at it on the replay I've no complaints. I've let the lads down. They've performed brilliantly, so hopefully this doesn't take it away from the players. This is what this football club deserves. We deserve to be in the Champions League final. The boys were excellent and I hope the incident doesn't take away from how hard they worked."
There was sympathy from his manager – "We're all human beings and everybody can make a mistake," said Di Matteo – over a first red card in two years but the captain's team-mates rallied to resist Barça's second-half assault with relish.
Lionel Messi missed a penalty with the score still 2-1 to the hosts and later saw the outstanding Petr Cech turn an attempt on to a post, with Chelsea's players jubilant on the final whistle.
"It's one of the finest moments in a Chelsea shirt," said Frank Lampard. "I know people want to see beautiful football but to play for 50-odd minutes with 10 men and to be 2-0 down here, and yet perform like that, with that spirit … well, it was unbelievable. That clock wasn't half slow in that second half but there was a determination about us. You get what you deserve and we were all in it together today. What a fantastic result."
The 3-2 aggregate success was secured when Torres ran alone from inside his own half to round Victor Valdés and convert the visitors' second.
"Football is like that: the best team doesn't always win," said Torres. "We knew that this was the way we had to play against Barcelona although, at times, it is not the most beautiful thing. We used our weapons and it came off well for us in both matches. They had their chances but they didn't score and Ramires's goal gave us life when all seemed lost.
"We have great respect for Barcelona because we know they are the best in the world but, for those players who lost [to Barça in the semi-final] three years ago, it is a sure way to get even. For those of us who weren't there it is the last step towards a Champions League final. We have had a bad season in the Premier League but it can still end up a memorable year. We have to believe we will triumph."
The Barca defender Gerard Piqué was taken to hospital with concussion after being clattered by Valdes early on, with Pep Guardiola supportive of Messi and gracious despite his side's elimination. For Di Matteo, who was out of work a year ago following his dismissal as manager of West Bromwich Albion, this side's transformation over eight weeks has been breathtaking. "Four months ago no one thought we had a chance," added Ashley Cole. "We lost a few games in the Premier League but we always believed and knew we were good enough to be here. You can't beat that desire and fight that you saw out there."