Pre-match talks of this Champions League semi-final clash has been on an unusual tone for Barcelona for a long time: the possibility of not winning 3 matches consecutively; and it proved a valid concern. It’s the first time under Guardiola that Barcelona fails to win a major competition (La Liga is all but almost gone) since his taking over in 2008. Any crisis at the mighty Nou Camp? We may need more time to draw a solid conclusion; but if we take a look at the performance and stats, we can generally say that one thing that has cost Barcelona a chance to be the first team to defend a Champions League title is the lack of defensive concentration.
Chelsea’s counter attacks
Throughout the tie, Chelsea has managed 4 (including the half-way line shot by Drogba tonight) shots-on-target and scored 3, all of which resulted from quick counters. It is a known secret that to hit Barcelona with flashing quick counters is one of the most powerful weapon that any team can use to fight against them and Chelsea has put that in perfection. Drogba’s goal in the first leg was more of a tactical victory from Di Matteo since it was Ramires who took advantage of Dani Alves’s advance position and created that goal. In tonight’s game, it was Barcelona’s lack of concentration that gifted two crucially important away goals to Chelsea.
It was obvious to me that Rameires goal was due to relaxed minds among Barcelona’s players: Terry was just sent-off and they scored a second goal right after. Everything was going well and suddenly a deep run from Rameires was unnoticed even when there were enough personnel in Barcelona’s defense (there were 3 men in front of Ramires but a big gap was left for him to run in). Of course Ramires’ finish was superb, but for me, that goal was totally preventable. (Even Valdes’ decision to rush out was doubtful for me.)
Barcelona had the ball for all the second half but failed to deliver a goal despite Messi hitting the woodwork twice. What stuck me was Torres’ game closing goal: he and Valdes were the only two players in Barcelona’s half (Busquets did tried to chance back but he was miles away). That is very unusual for Barcelona even if they are playing Rondos in the opponent’s half: they always have enough players (at least 2) to cover any clearance and put the ball back into play immediately. But this time, even Torres was in a bit of disbelieve that he has a whole 40-50 yards to run with the ball without any Barcelona players around him. You may argue Barcelona’s players were under immense pressure to pull a goal back and pushed up too much but for me, leaving no one in the half-way line was totally unacceptable given that score-line.
You may think that Pique’s injury has an adverse effect but for the last two seasons Barcelona has been playing with ‘fake’ defenders all the time and this should not be an excuse.
Di Matteo’s game plan and adaptation
Credit should be given to Chelsea’s players for their defensive discipline, which is the first priority when facing Barcelona, and, adaptability. (Ivanovic and Bosingwa did a great job tonight in their make-shift CB roles)
Similar to the first leg, Chelsea tried not to drop too deep (as Mourinho’s Inter, who was defending in their penalty area throughout the match) during the first half hour of the game. The only difference was that the whole midfield line dropped and stayed very close with their fellow defenders whereas during the first leg, that gap was mainly filled by Meireles only. The result was mixed during the first half and Barcelona did find ways to penetrate through to the area between Cech and his defenders (Messi and Fabregas’ jaw-dropping one-two was one of the examples).
More credit, however, should be given to Di Matteo, who adapted his side brilliantly given the injury of Cahill and the dismissal of Terry.
First of all, after Terry’s dismissal, Chelsea’s players were pushing a lot more forward then when they are playing with 11. Of course Iniesta’s second goal was a direct result from that but so was Ramires’ goal. Given it’s an away match, the gamble obviously paid off.
Secondly, Chelsea’s defense line was dropping much deeper during the second half and was almost replicating Mourinho’s plane-parking tactics. Throughout the whole second half, Barcelona didn’t quite managed to penetrate through that wall built within Chelsea’s penalty box. It’s quite unusual to see Iniesta and co trying to shoot even when there are 2 -3 players blocking the way.
Thirdly, by replacing Mata and Drogba by Kalou and Torres, it further complicated the dilemma for Barcelona’s last men (Mascherano, Busquets and sometimes Puyol and Alves) by leaving their own half empty. In fact, Torres scored and Kalou also had a half-chance in Barcelona’s box.
I would’t say it’s a below-par performance from Barcelona overall because if you look at the stats, they are still that Barcelona who dominates every single match and they did manage to score twice. It was obvious that during much of the second half their energy level dropped so much that there weren’t any movements inside Chelsea’s penalty box: they were merely standing and waiting for the ball to come or perhaps looking for one-two’s to play a midfielder in. Maybe that’s because Chelsea was playing so deep and compact that none of those dangerous defenders-dragging-runs were applicable but that should’t be a problem for them. After all, this is not the first time a team parked a plane and would’t be the last time either.
However, I am more concerned about the bench depth in the defending department. While Puyol is still that fighting figure we’ve known for more than a decade and Pique has certainly got more to give in the coming years, the other new La Masia products who’ve flourished under Guardiola are mostly attacking players: Pedro, Thiago, Cuenca, Tello. For now, the policy of using midfielders as makeshift defenders is still working but let’s hoping it won’t get exposed that hard and that much as tonight.
Rumors are that Guardiola is going to step down after this season. That would be quite a bitter pause note for his managerial career but I am more interested to see him flourish elsewhere to prove his coaching ability. Di Matteo, on the other hand, might need some blessing (or probably a Champions League medal) to stay permanently at Chelsea: we’ve all whiteness how Avram Grant was treated after guiding Chelsea to two runner-ups. Nonetheless, I am sure he’ll do good at Chelsea or anywhere because his time at West Brom and now at Chelsea already proved he’s a very capable coach and should be given the chance to manage a side for a relatively longer time.