Di Matteo: Life in old Drog yet

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
CHELSEA 1 vs BARCELONA 0

CHELSEA manager Roberto di Matteo hailed his evergreen stars last night after Didier Drogba again defied his advancing years to defeat Barcelona and put the Blues in touching distance of an unlikely place in the Champions League final.

Drogba capped a swift counter-attack with a clinical finish in first-half injury time – Chelsea’s only effort on target in the entire 90 minutes – as Di Matteo’s men worked tirelessly to repel the holders in this semi-final first leg.

Barca did create chances – 24, in fact – and enjoyed 72 per cent possession but, despite hitting post and bar and seeing another effort heroically cleared off the line by Ashley Cole, could not respond and will need to win in Spain on Tuesday.

Victory also felt like revenge, following the Blues’ controversial 2009 exit to the Catalans, and Di Matteo was indebted to the tenacity and resilience of his senior stars – notably Drogba, 34 – who were written off in some quarters earlier in the season.

“I think in the past a lot of the public opinion has been that this boy is over the line, too old to play two games [in four days] and play at this level,” said Di Matteo. “And it wasn’t just him – there were a lot of players you regard as the old guard who played two games in a short period of time. I think they gave their answers on the pitch tonight.”

The Italian interim boss, who is now only 180 minutes from delivering the trophy Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich craves most, denied Barca’s dominance deserved better and rejected their manager’s assertion that the Londoners were now favourites to advance.

“I think when you score a goal and win a game then you deserve to win. They had more possession and a few more attempts on target – they always have that – so you need to be clinical and take your chances,” he added.

“I don’t think it makes us favourites. It’s 50-50 for both teams to go through. It’s going to be very, very difficult and we have to believe we can score there.”

Barca coach Pep Guardiola insisted his decorated team had become the underdogs and admitted Chelsea’s physical superiority posed him a second-leg conundrum.

“Now the favourites are Chelsea. They have a good result. We have the chance to play 90 minutes and we will try our best to create as many chances as possible, but 1-0 is a very, very good result for them,” he said. “It won’t be simple. They have more legs than us, they are stronger than us, they jump more than us, and we’ll have to take the game into our control and discover the way to score goals.”

Di Matteo signalled his intention to stifle Barca’s boundless creativity by sacrificing Juan Mata’s flair in the middle, instead fielding the Spaniard wide right, and deploying Raul Meireles as an extra terrier to marshal Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and 63-goal Lionel Messi.

It worked, but in the early stages Chelsea were chasing shadows. On the rare occasions they did win possession they were often so dispersed that counter-attacks fizzled out.

For all their dominance, Barca forged only glimpses – Alexis Sanchez lobbing onto the bar, Fabregas slicing wide, Petr Cech saving a Messi header – until the 43rd minute, when Fabregas dinked over the Blues goalkeeper only for Cole to scamper back and hook off the line.

Seconds later Chelsea landed the sucker punch. Frank Lampard found Ramires’s break from deep and the indefatigable Brazil midfielder squared for Drogba, who swept past Victor Valdes at the far post.

The European champions, unaccustomed to such slim pickings, saw Cech tip Adriano’s shot wide and Alexis push a point-blank chance the wrong side of the post, while John Terry and Gary Cahill diligently snuffed out through-balls.

Barca saved their best until last, Carles Puyol’s flicked header drawing a sprawling tip from Cech and substitute Pedro’s low shot beating the stopper but not the upright, before Sergio Busquets scooped the rebound over.