by Jerrad Peters (@peterssoccer)
Chelsea might as well have had their pre-game team talk delivered Galdalf from The Lord of the Rings: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
The Blues used their time well, exceptionally well, at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday when they ground out a surprising 1-0 win over European Cup holders Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal. Assignments were adhered to; defensive pressure was applied in concert; every Chelsea player seemed to summon an otherworldly level of concentration. Even the weather conspired in their favour, dropping sheets of rain on a pitch that became less conducive to Barcelona’s short-passing, free-flowing style as the night wore on.
Not that Barcelona haven’t taken on an obstinate opponent before. On the eight occasions they’ve dropped points in La Liga this season they’ve typically come up against a geared-up side that did many of the things Chelsea did on Wednesday. In only three of those matches, however, did they fail to find the back of the net, and they’ve only been kept scoreless in the league once since October.
What each of the teams that have earned a result against the mighty Catalans will tell you is that typical pre-game preparation goes out the window. There are no Xs and Os on the manager’s chalkboard ahead of kickoff; there is no mention of 4-5-1s or 4-3-2-1s or any other tactical formation that might be of use. The likes of Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta don’t exactly play from a certain position that makes them exposed to man-marking; head coach Pep Guardiola doesn’t, himself, draw out a teamsheet that allows his opponent to come back at him with a formational strategy.
No, when you face Barcelona you must first accept that they are going to dictate the terms. All the talk of “just go out there and play our game” or “take the game to them” or “attack them at their weak spots” is nothing more than hyperbole, and the fools who spew it out end up on the receiving end of a right rollicking when all is said and done.
Barcelona, as Marcelo Bielsa found out when he laid the template for taking points off them back in November, must be approached with humility, with respect. Any notion that some sort of tactical plan may, if you catch them on a bad day, produce a favourable result is hopelessly naive—something Roberto Di Matteo obviously understood in the buildup to the showdown at Stamford Bridge.
The Chelsea manager’s teamsheet—which in any other match might have been drawn out as a 4-3-2-1—took no definitive shape after kickoff, nor should it have. Barcelona had the ball from the first minute and ended up keeping it for three-quarters of the match while stringing together more than 700 passes. Tactics, for the team on the receiving end of the display of dominance, are useless in such circumstance when the only thing keeping you from conceding goal after goal is concentration on the hundreds of individual battles that take place over the course of a match.
Chelsea excelled on these battlegrounds, and while they rarely created meaningful turnovers they applied significant pressure to the opposing ball-carriers, who became more and more frustrated the longer they were denied an opening. Raul Meireles, Mikel and Ramires peskily harassed Messi, Xavi and Iniesta; Frank Lampard’s brave forays from the defensive line in front of the defensive line forced the Barcelona attack to move either right or left, where they were inevitably swarmed by blue shirts.
Then, a goal.
After a rare mistake by Messi, who was having to drift deeper and deeper into midfield to involve himself in Barcelona’s buildup play, Lampard picked out Ramires with a long, accurate pass the Brazilian carried until squaring across the face of goal for Didier Drogba to bang in. Just like that. From nothing.
Drogba’s overall performance on Wednesday was nothing short of heroic, and the goal was only part of his contribution. The big centre-forward compelled the likes of Carlos Puyol, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets to foul him on numerous occasions (many of which he exaggerated), and the constant stops and starts only further hampered Barcelona’s preferred style of play.
In fact, the amount of stoppages created by Chelsea—whether by fouls administered or received—proved to be the defining element of their performance. Barcelona were thrown off their game, and in the 66th minute chose to make the first substitution of the match—something they’re rarely required to do. After all, they’re the ones who dictate the terms.
In welcoming so many stops and starts, and by keeping Barcelona on the perimeter for long stretches, Chelsea did the only thing they were ever going to be able to do against an obviously superior opponent: they made good use of time. It wasn’t often time on the ball, but it was time spent reacting to Barcelona’s dominance with composure, concentration and, occasionally, guile.
Barcelona may dominate football matches, but they can’t monopolise time. And the only thing we can decide, as we know, is what to do with the time that is given us.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer
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