18 April ~ Chelsea take on Barcelona at Stamford Bridge tonight in what has already brought back fond memories of the 2009 Champions League semi-final, where the Blues went down to a mixture of questionable refereeing and a half-decent strike by Andrés Iniesta. "People say Chelsea should have won but for the referee, but that is not our problem. Chelsea did not reach the final because of fear." Never one to miss an opportunity to aggravate a situation, Dani Alves seems to forget that it is always easy to pass comment in hindsight, especially when the decisions fall in your favour. The Brazilian is right to criticise Chelsea for their lack of adventure, but the game fitted well with the Villarato conspiracy.
Barcelona's opponents are generally labelled as the enthusiastic underdogs, with fans and pundits falling over themselves to praise the beautiful football they play every week. Of course, match highlights only have a limited running time, so Sergio Busquets' playful antics are generally edited out.
This tie is unlike previous encounters between the teams. Chelsea are fighting to save a season that has been difficult to say the least, but they could finish with more silverware than the top three put together. Few expect Chelsea to get anything from the tie, other than a half-hearted pat on the back for being the last English team in European competition that has been dominated by La Liga representatives. The pressure is off.
Chelsea are buoyed after their demolition of Spurs in the FA Cup, irrespective of dubious goals, the half-filled Wembley or the disappointing pre-match form from a minority of fans. Roberto di Matteo has boosted the team’s fortunes by implementing his own measures, or more likely permitting players’ rule. His appointment as "interim" manager has steadied the ship and could rescue the club's season. Anyone who not only takes the risk of starting Salomon Kalou and John Obi Mikel each week, but also makes them look like real life footballers, has to be admired.
Tonight's match rests on the usual old shoulders. John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba must see this as a last opportunity to step up and take the game to a Barcelona team that have not looked as unbeatable as in previous years. Some of their hype has been stolen by the Real Madrid side that have surpassed them domestically.
The absence of David Luiz is offset by the superb recent form of Branislav Ivanovic, who will have to keep on top of the absurdly prolific Lionel Messi, while also continuing his own impressive goal threat from set pieces. If Drogba remains in a non-Ashley Young frame of mind, the team keeps focused and the ball is given to Juan Mata at every available opportunity, Chelsea can enter the Nou Camp on the front foot.
Chelsea must play to their strengths, as unattractive as they may be when compared to Barcelona's breathtaking tiki-taka (nice passing and falling over). Barcelona will not want to be further compounded into second best by missing out on an all-Spanish final, and this craving could benefit Chelsea over the course of the tie. Jonathan Warke