ENGLISH clubs have enjoyed some breathtaking nights in Champions League history, such as Manchester United’s last-gasp 1999 triumph and Liverpool’s incredible comeback in the 2005 final. Chelsea’s backs-to-the-wall victory over Barcelona, however, deserves to be mentioned in the same breath, albeit for different reasons.
Tuesday’s remarkable scenes at Camp Nou were the product of a transformation that seemed impossible just weeks ago. Then, during the last days of Andre Villas-Boas’s reign as manager, they were only heading one way: down. When the draw for the quarter- and semi-finals was made, popular opinion was that Barca might as well have been given a bye to the final.
What interim boss Roberto di Matteo has pulled off since then has been incredible. He inherited a dreadful atmosphere and a dispirited squad but, with inspired man-management, has reinstated a powerful collective identity – the kind that became their calling card under the glory days of Jose Mourinho – that has carried them from strength to strength.
Beating Barca was certainly a group effort, although some individuals stood out for Herculean performances that compensated for John Terry’s stupid sending-off. Ramires was terrific, as he has been lately, and his finish sublime; Didier Drogba, from attack to left-back, was immense and typified Chelsea’s attitude; Petr Cech kept them in it and looks the goalkeeper of four years ago once more. And Fernando Torres, whose first touch brilliantly took a huge clearance away from the defender before he showed the composure we knew he was capable of to score the crowning goal.
The only sad thing is that four Chelsea players will miss the final through suspension, and I think perhaps it is time the rules were re-examined. Being banned for perhaps the biggest game of your career is fair enough for a red card, but for a yellow that could have been for nothing seems terribly tough and will end up diminishing the match itself.
Now just 90 minutes separate Chelsea from a first Champions League title. Could they do it and pull off a most improbable of triumphs? If they show the same level of belief, bravery and commitment as they did in two legs against Barca, then definitely.