Thursday, 19 April 2012

Di Matteo outwits Guardiola to put Chelsea in pole position

Well. What a night at Stamford Bridge. What a bloody night!! We really seem to have a knack of pulling out massive European nights at the Bridge. Barca in 2005, Liverpool in 2009 and Napoli, Benfica and now Barca 2012, to name just a few.

It wasn’t pretty, no-one can deny that, but if any coach of any team in the world wants to show their players how to defend, the dvd of last night’s game would be a very worthwhile investment.

There have been many reports of Barcelona being the ‘better team’, but I find it hard to agree with that. What defines the ‘better team’? The one who has most possession? The one who has most passes or attempts on goal? Or the one who gets their tactics spot on, plays with control, dedication and discipline for 90 minutes, takes the chances presented to them and defends for their lives? It’s a funny old game - of which defence is as much a part as attack and of which tactics are as much a part as class.

Don’t get me wrong, Chelsea’s performance wasn’t perfect. Although it had the desired effect in breaking up play and frustrating Barca, few Blues fans would’ve enjoyed Didier Drogba’s theatrics. And John Obi Mikel and Raul Miereles once again failed to shower themselves in glory on a footballing front, repeatedly playing themselves into trouble and relinquishing what little possession the Blues enjoyed.

And yes, Chelsea rode their luck at times, with Barca hitting the bar after just eight minutes. But other moments and alleged ‘sitters’ for the visitors were missed not due to their own poor finishing or even complacency, but due to Chelsea’s back line and the excellent Petr Cech, at the peak of his game. Ashley Cole, who had a fantastic night – arguably one of his best in a blue shirt – cleared one off the line in the first half due to reading the game and good positional play and forced Fabregas to shoot wide in the second half with his last-ditch attempt at a challenge enough to put the Spaniard off. And that’s not to mention the vital touches both Branislav Ivanovic and Cole got on the last minute effort that came off the post, only for Busquets to fire over. You make your own luck.

But Roberto Di Matteo must also been given enormous credit for masterminding an outstanding defensive display well worthy of the clean sheet. Playing Ramires out of position on the left wing was a sensational move. His attacking threat, pace and ability to run all day long kept Alves largely pinned back in his own half, negating a lot of Barca’s attacking springboard. Even without the run and pass for Drogba’s winner, the Brazilian was nothing short of outstanding.

One Chelsea player who really made a name for himself on the biggest domestic stage was January signing (and bargain) Gary Cahill. The centre-back put in challenge after challenge, block after block and worked tirelessly with John Terry to keep Messi and co. at bay. This time last year, he was losing 5-0 at Wembley against Stoke City. How times change.

And once again John Terry lead by example, at one point chasing Alves all the way to Barcelona’s own corner flag from the half-way line. The sliding challenge at the death epitomised everything that not only the Chelsea captain, but the whole team, were about last night. Rightly or wrongly, Andre Villas-Boas would never have got that performance out of that group of players.

But as the old cliché goes, it’s only half-time and Chelsea have a massive job to do at Camp Nou on Tuesday. An early away goal would make a huge difference to the outlook of the tie, requiring Barca to score at least three to reach Munich.

For what it’s worth, my tactics would be to go for it in the first 20 minutes. Barca wouldn’t expect the kitchen sink thrown at them and certainly not so early. It would allow Chelsea to catch them unawares and hopefully snatch that all-important away goal and they could then retreat into their defensive shell.

But I’m sure Robbie will have something up his sleeve.

C’mon the Chels!

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