Best away performances by English sides in the Champions League – Barcelona v Chelsea, 2012

In part three of our series on the best away performances by English sides in the Champions League, we focus on the dramatic Champions League semi-final in 2012 between Chelsea and Barcelona.

The London club entered this game with a 1-0 lead from the first leg at Stamford Bridge as Didier Drogba gave the Blues a precious advantage to take to the Nou Camp. Pep Guardiola’s side had enjoyed the lion’s share of possession and chances in London but they were unable to secure an away goal.

Many felt that Barcelona would not miss those chances again as they had scored 102 goals at the Nou Camp prior to this game and when John Terry was sent-off after 37 minutes played, the odds of Chelsea progressing reduced even further. Despite the numerical disadvantage, Chelsea produced a brilliant display to stun the defending champions in a classic away performance.

Barcelona 2 Chelsea 2

On April 24th 2012, Chelsea lined up at the Nou Camp looking to protect their one goal advantage from the first leg as they tried to derail Barcelona’s attempts to become the first side to secure back-to-back Champions League titles. They faced a daunting challenge with Barcelona scoring goals for fun across all competitions. Lionel Messi had found the back of the net 14 times during the 2011-2012 Champions League, the most scored by any player in a single campaign in the competition’s history at the time.

Barcelona were struggling to emulate their amazing 2010-2011 season where they won La Liga for the third time in a row and also secured the Champions League after defeating Man United 3-1 in the final. Pep Guardiola’s side had also completed the treble in the 2008-2009 season by winning the Copa Del Rey, Champions League and Champions League.

However, they entered this contest off the back of a damaging defeat to Real Madrid in La Liga which effectively ended their hopes of retaining La Liga as the loss put them seven points behind their arch rivals with only four games left to play. After the first leg defeat to Chelsea, the pressure was on for Messi and co. to salvage their season and create Champions League history.

Chelsea had endured a tumultuous season with Roberto Di Matteo becoming ‘the Blues’ caretaker manager after André Villas Boas, who became manager at the start of the season, was sacked in March 2012. This meant Di Matteo took over with Chelsea on a run of one win from six in the league and staring down the barrel of exiting the Champions League in the Last 16 after losing 3-1 to Napoli away from home.

However, Di Matteo was in charge when ‘the Blues’ beating the Italian side 4-1 at home after extra time to reach the quarter finals. They continued to struggle in the league but they defeated Benfica to reach the last four and thrashed Tottenham 5-1 in the semi-final of the FA Cup ten days before this game.

Entering this encounter, the belief was that Barcelona would have the lion’s share of possession while Chelsea would need to mainly rely on the counter-attack. And that is how the game started off, with Barcelona pressing the action and they should have taken the lead in the third minute when Alexis Sanchez and Messi produced some deft touches to set the Argentinian through on goal but with just Cech to beat, Messi’s right footed effort hit the side netting.

The away side suffered a blow when Gary Cahill suffered a hamstring injury and was forced off. And with David Luiz also injured this meant Di Matteo had to call upon Jose Bosingwa with Branislav Ivanovic moving to the centre of defence.

Chelsea struggled to get out of their own half with Xavi and Iniesta helping the Spanish side keep the ball for large periods of time. Barcelona looked capable to carving open the Chelsea rearguard at any moment and on the 18th minute it was Messi once more involved in creating a scoring opportunity. He threaded a ball through to Fabregas and with his back to goal the former Arsenal captain played a delightful back heel in behind the Chelsea defence to set Messi free. However Messi, who scored a staggering 73 goals in the 2011-2012 season, fired his effort too close to Cech and Chelsea survived.

Fabregas hit the side netting with a right footed volley from a tricky angle before Javier Mascherano’s 30 yard drive was only inches over Cech’s crossbar with Chelsea now camped on their own 18 yard line. Didier Drogba was proving an effective target man for a Chelsea side looking for revenge after their last gasp semi-final defeat to Barcelona in 2009. The Ivorian latched onto a long Cech delivery before he shrugged off Gerard Pique but his effort from a tight angle only found the side netting.

Barcelona found the breakthrough they were searching for after 35 minutes after the visitors cleared a corner but their defence failed to push up with Dani Alves finding Isaac Cuenca, whose cutback was slotted home by Sergio Busquets. This goal gave Barcelona confidence with Chelsea needing calm heads to deal with the Barcelona onslaught.

However, one minute after conceding, John Terry inexplicably placed his knee into Alexis Sanchez’s back with the Chelsea captain receiving a red card from referee Cuneyt Cakir. Barcelona began to pour forward in search of a second before the break with Sanchez failing to get the ball out of his feet in a promising position. The Catalonia side were not to be denied however with Messi sliding Iniesta through with the Spanish playmaker slotting low beneath Cech. This seemed to be the end of Chelsea’s dreams of reaching the final as they fell behind on aggregate.

But Chelsea refused to collapse and instead they shocked the Nou Camp by pulling a goal back before the break. Frank Lampard played Ramires through on goal with the Brazilian midfielder producing a deft lob over Victor Valdes who barely touched the ball in the opening 45 minutes. Ramires channelled the spirit of Roy Keane in 1999 as he received a yellow card that ruled him out of the showpiece event moment before scoring.

The goal certainly came as a surprise but Barcelona were still expected to overcome this stubborn Chelsea side in the second half. Inter Milan did achieve a similar feat in 2010 when they lost 2-0 to Barcelona at the Nou Camp with ten men which was enough to progress to that year’s final. However, the Italian side had their first choice defence, whereas Chelsea were forced to play Ramires and Ashley Cole as full backs with Ivanovic and Bosingwa in the centre of defence.

Barcelona almost scored again a minute into the second half when Fabregas’ chest down found Iniesta but Ivanovic produced a superb block to prevent Chelsea conceding a third. A one-two between Fabregas and Messi saw the Spaniard tripped by Didier Drogba inside the box with the referee not hesitating in awarding Barcelona a penalty. Messi stepped up but his effort from 12 yards hit the crossbar as his run of failing to score against Chelsea continued.

The pressure Barcelona were exerting was relentless and this time a Dani Alves cross was met by Sanchez but the Chilean’s header went wide at the near post. Just after the hour mark Messi and Iniesta combined to carve out a chance for Cuenca but Cech narrowed the angle and saved the low effort.

Chelsea began to increase their physicality with Lampard earning a yellow card for a late challenge on Fabregas. With 15 minutes remaining Barcelona were struggling to break down Roberto Di Matteo’s side although Sergio Busquets fired over for the Catalonian side when he should have at least hit the target.

Pep Gurdiola’s charges did find the net in the 82nd minute but Dani Alves was offside before he cut the ball back for Alexis Sanchez to slot home. A minute later Messi cut in and unleashed a left footed effort that Cech got the slightest touch on with the ball hitting the post and rebounding out. Barcelona continued to attack down the middle but Chelsea continued to stood firm as Mascherano’s effort from outside the box was saved by Cech.

Puyol headed over from the resulting corner with three minutes of added on time signalled. Barcelona poured everyone forward but an Ashley Cole punt found Fernando Torres all alone as he strode forward.

The Spanish striker coolly rounded Victor Valdes and scored an unforgettable late goal to seal Chelsea’s place in the Champions League final. Chelsea subsequently won the final against Bayern Munich in a penalty shootout and they also claimed the FA Cup in what was an unforgettable end to the season for the Blues. Chelsea’s resolve and last ditch defending made this one of the greatest performances by an Enlgish side in the Champions League.

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Ivan Smyth

Sports writer and soccer follower. Twitter: @IvanSmythSport

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