The mood should have been one of raucous celebration. It would not have felt surprising to see Chelsea players clogging up the aisle on flight ZT4872 from Barcelona to Gatwick as they revelled in the party mood, cabin crew weaving in among the tracksuits to deliver champagne to the executives and VIPs in the galley's mid-section, no doubt with Madness blaring away over the intercom. Yet, instead, the Champions League finalists touched down back in West Sussex in the small hours of Wednesday yesterday subdued. Almost disbelieving. Occasions as mind-boggling as that at the Camp Nou can have that effect.

Theirs was a collective comedown from the adrenaline rush, exhaustion from an energy-sapping occasion inevitably creeping in as players attempted to comprehend what had just been achieved. Emotionally, they were drained. Frank Lampard had spoken of the game passing in "all a bit of a daze", with team-mates left to pick over the drama to recreate the timeline: conceding to Sergio Busquets; losing John Terry to a red card; falling further behind to Andrés Iniesta; Ramires's glorious riposte; Lionel Messi's penalty miss; the quivering of the woodwork as they heaved to contain the holders; the desperate rearguard action before Fernando Torres, the £50m goalscorer with so few goals to his name, sprinted alone into Barça territory and equalised in stoppage time.

When the theatre was laid bare as a series of improbable episodes, those contemplating the evening's entertainment could only muster a chuckle. It all felt too outlandish even to be the stuff of dreams. "English clubs have produced some massive performances in Europe, and this was one of the biggest because there was a mountain in front of us in [the shape of] Barcelona," said Lampard.

"Everyone knows what they're about. They do it to teams week in, week out, outplaying them and beating them. At 2-0 up and with us a man down, they could have gone on and smashed us by five or six. At that stage, no one would have dreamed of us scoring twice and getting through. To do what we did with 10 men is something special. What desire. But we have to keep an element of perspective, too, because there's a game still to be won. I don't care much for losing finals."

Therein lay another explanation for the relatively muted atmosphere. For four of those present any underlying sense of elation was tempered by the realisation that, for all their efforts, their involvement in Munich on 19 May will purely be as spectators. Branislav Ivanovic, who had only discovered post-match in a Sky television interview that his booking for scuffing the penalty spot ahead of Messi's attempt would rule him out of the showpiece, joked with the masseurs as if it actually mattered little. Raul Meireles and Ramires lost themselves in their thoughts within designer headphones. The Brazilian might also have required a reminder of the implications of his booking for comments made in the wake of Iniesta's goal. He had been blissfully unaware Chelsea had won at Benfica in the quarter-final's first leg despite having played the entire 90 minutes against his former club, with a Portuguese television interviewer having to correct his post-match assertion on the touchline that "we're pleased because 0-0 is a good result for us". After all, 1-0 was considerably better even if Ramires had been prone on the turf and oblivious when the winning goal had been scored.

For Terry, numbed in the seat next to the Boeing 757's main exit with Lampard at his side, the sense of regret must have been overwhelming. This should have been his moment of triumph yet, back at the Camp Nou, the captain had experienced virtually every emotion possible: defiance, fury, bewilderment, shame, remorse, even elation. He and Gary Cahill, hamstrung and replaced after only 12 minutes on his first visit back to the arena since a tour as a 10-year-old, had watched Barça's late offensive on a television screen in the tunnel, kicking and heading every ball in absentia before erupting in unbridled joy first when Torres converted and then, seconds later, as the referee Cuneyt Cakir finally blew his whistle.

Cahill had been receiving treatment throughout much of the second period, braced to feel the arena rise as one to hail a Barcelona goal. "But I watched those last 20 minutes with JT, saw them hit the post and have a goal ruled out, and it was so nerve-racking," said Cahill. "In the end we tipped the tunnel upside down. Everything went over."

So, too, have Terry's chances been toppled. Team-mates so keen to celebrate must have been unsure how to react in his presence, aware as everyone is at this club that here is a player who has been seeking redemption in the competition for nearly four years now. His wait will be prolonged, even if the club's thirst might yet be quenched, and it would have been awkward to be elated while he conducted his own soul-searching.

For others in this team, a rare opportunity awaits. Didier Drogba, sent off in the Luzhniki Stadium against Manchester United that night in 2008, broke away from the ranks of players some 20 minutes from the end of the flight to meander up the cabin to high-five some of the VIPs, his red Dr Dre headphones yanked down and not a hint of a limp, a tumble or headed clearance in sight. "Everyone deserves a second chance," he said when asked about atoning for Moscow. "I don't know if it will be mine. But I faced a lot of criticism after that final and it helped me to grow up a little bit more."

The goalkeeper Petr Cech at least acknowledged the possibility that Chelsea might be destined to succeed this time round. "Maybe," he offered. "This is why everyone loves football: things happen which you just cannot explain. Your season looks to be in trouble, then you have an amazing run in the Champions League. For all the last seven years we haven't had any luck in this competition, and now we are having some luck.

"Back in 2008 we lost on penalties and it was heartbreaking. Now we have another chance and we have to take it. We were 3-1 down to Napoli, we won in Benfica, and no one believed on the outside that we could make it past Barcelona, even after winning the first leg. But we have just beaten the best team in the world. Now we believe anything is possible."

Deep down, and even with their resources so depleted, the confidence is building. Roberto Di Matteo, whose stewardship of this squad insists he is now a contender to take over on a permanent basis, even if the job spec changes in the summer, had left the fist-pumping, animated celebrations back at Camp Nou. By the time he strode across the Gatwick arrivals lounge in the small hours, his trademark placid – almost serene – expression had been restored. He was even whistling to himself as he glided along one of the travelators, the interim first-team coach a picture of contentment. His has been a personal triumph already, but Chelsea will hope there are wilder celebrations to come.