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A Bridge too far….

Posted on 8th May 2009. No Comment

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didier_drogba2_1398681cAttempting to collect your thoughts less than twenty-four hours after your team were two minutes from Rome and the Champions League final is a potentially risky business. But then again, as for Chelsea’s players last night, passion is at the heart of football.

It is for Barcelona as well. The celebrations that greeted Andres Iniesta’s 93rd minute strike were reminiscent of Jose Mourinho’s frantic touchline sprint as his Porto side delivered a similar knockout blow to Manchester United a few years back. The Portuguese team went on to win the trophy that year, and Barcelona will be hoping they can do the same.

Yet for all the hype, all the plaudits, this magnificent side were restricted to one shot on target all night. And, the performance of referee Tom Henning Ovrebo aside, it is perhaps the blind assertion from some that the best team went through, and that this was now the final ‘the world wanted to see’ that is most puzzling.

Over the two legs, Guus Hiddink’s tactics were spot-on. Chelsea employed a similar defensive strategy at Stamford Bridge to the display that rewarded them as the only team not to concede at the Nou Camp this season, whilst ensuring that they played that ten yards further up the pitch that was so crucial to their second-half comeback against Liverpool. And it paid off. The Barca side were restricted to passing the ball around outside the area and were constantly closed down. Beyond that, the Catalan club lacked incisiveness; Daniel Alves hit crosses into the stands and through balls into the area that ran harmlessly out for goal kicks. Shots from range (unlike Essien’s effort) flew tamely wide and the much lauded Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi were, as so often against English clubs, anonymous.

Contrary to their billing as the Beast in comparison to Barcelona’s beauty, Chelsea played the best football of the night. The exchanges between Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole that resulted in Essien’s stunning strike and Florent Malouda’s creativity down the wings were better than anything Barcelona put together. As Iniesta proved, Barcelona always has the potential to undo you with a moment of brilliance, but tonight that was all it was. Based on Chelsea’s performances in this year’s competition, Alex Ferguson will likely be rubbing his hands at the prospect of not having to replay last year’s final.

As will UEFA President Michel Platini, and that is more worrying. To have a man in charge of European competition who has openly labelled the spending of those clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea as akin to cheating, is aggravating to say the least. Conspiracy theories are taking it too far, but the decision to appoint a referee who has officiated only 22 Champions League games in the last eight years and who was dropped from Euro 2008 after admitting he incorrectly disallowed an Italian goal is slightly bizarre.

Speaking after the game, Chelsea captain John Terry stated that Ovrebo’s decisions were “astonishing”. Despite the fact that Chelsea should have made the most of other chances, it was a fair assessment. Guus Hiddink admitted that Eric Abidal’s tug on Drogba and their tangle of legs probably balanced out the penalty denied to Thierry Henry in the first leg, but Alves’s obstruction of Malouda that resulted in a free-kick despite being inside the area and, most obviously, Gerard Pique’s handball as Nicolas Anelka guided the ball past him, should have resulted in at least one penalty. The fourth claim, right at the death after Michael Ballack’s shot was blocked from close range by Samuel Eto’o’s upper arm, was perhaps the most debatable, yet Eto’o jumped with his arm in the air; an offence, as Hiddink pointed out, that Juliano Belletti was penalised for against Juventus.

Ovrebo’s performance will rightly be looked at, as will the reactions of the Chelsea players at the final whistle. Hiddink defended his players’ frustration, yet Ballack and Drogba’s protests almost crossed the line into unacceptable physical intimidation. Like any human, Ovrebo made mistakes, and as a human he deserved better treatment. But the sense of injustice at Stamford Bridge was understandable. And, with the Darren Fletcher debacle also in mind, perhaps UEFA as an organisation should be more responsive to concerns and criticism, allowing such passion to find a productive outlet.

Viki Sparks

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