Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pride and Prejudice: The Champions League 2009 Semi-Final Stories

UEFA and football fans everywhere were the real winners of Barcelona's clash with Chelsea last night. And we now have a potential match of the ages to look forward to, United vs Barca, Ronaldo vs Messi, Puyol vs Rooney, Eto'o vs Vidic.

The Catalan side delivered a knockout blow to the Pensioners when little Andreas Iniesta popped up in injury time to score from the edge of the box to break Chelsea's heart, after they had taken the lead through a sensational 25 yard strike from Michael Essien.

And while Didier Drogba and Michael Ballack hounded Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo as the final whistle blew, Chelsea have no one else to blame but themselves.

They took the game to Barcelona, they had to. Could you honestly see Barcelona not scoring if Chelsea had sat back and tried to catch them on the break?

Everyone knew that one goal was never going to be enough, the Blues needed a second, and only for the heroics of Valdes in the Barcelona goal and for some profligate finishing, they might have got the goal they needed.

Ironically for Valdes, who has been Barcelona's real hero of the semis, he will now almost certainly be sold in the summer as Los Cules look to strengthen further. Football can be the cruellest of games...

When you go into matches like these, you always factor in that the referee will not get every decision right. Chelsea deserved "one" penalty, after Pique's deliberate hand ball with Anelka ready to pounce. Abidal did not deserve to be sent off, his minimal contact with Anelka is debatable.

Ironically, the last player to be sent off in the Champions League for Barcelona was none other than Pep Guardiola, the current manager.

And while one team screamed blue murder and created excuses for their own failure, the other went about their business like it should be done.

One nil down and after being reduced to 10 men, Barcelona had the excuse to pack up and go home. Their much vaunted game kept breaking down, like wave after wave crashing down on an unyielding wall.

But they showed great character. They never gave up, they kept their discipline and stuck to the original game plan. In short they kept faith with the system that has seen them gain fans from every corner of the globe this season.

And just when you thought the game was over, Fate played it's part. Barcelona deserved to get their goal. They kept at it, showing great moral courage in the face of Chelsea's superb defence.

And while Barcelona kept plugging away, even with 10 men, Chelsea kept shrinking. They kept backing off, and eventually they set up shop on the edge of their own penalty area, losing faith in their game.

It's something that teams do when they lose faith in team mates and them selves, they back off and try to defend and leave no space in behind themselves, it's a very dangerous thing to do against a team like Barcelona.

Barcelona showed all the courage and determination that was lost in Arsenal the nght before. While one team rolled over and gave up, the other fought on, and in the end they got their just rewards.

One must feel sympathy for "some" Chelsea players. Frank Lampard and John Terry epitomise everything that is good about the English game. They are whole-hearted players who never give less than 100%, plus they have the skill to back up their game.

And while fools like Didier Drogba and Ballack brought shame on the club, the EPL, and the game in general, it was significant that someone like Lampard tried to pull Drogba back from his verbal onslaught on the referee.

The two players in question will most probably face heavy fines and suspensions, and rightly so. There is something in sport called honour. It's about taking the victory and the defeat and treating them as the same, treating your opponent and the referee with dignity, neither player will be happy with their performances after the final whistle blew.

There just isn't any excuse. Of all players, Drogba to be screaming at the referee claiming he was a "f***ing disgrace" and that he cheated them is just pure wrong. The Ivorian hit the deck more times last night while looking for free kicks and penalties, that I'm surprised that the referee did not book him.

The excuses will be wheeled out that the game was such a big one and that he was upset at missing out on a career defining moment. Bullshit.

You keep your head. You hold onto your integrity. You keep your dignity. You maintain your pride. These things are more valuable than any trophy, and long after Drogba has gone as a player, this is what he will be remembered for.

He could learn a thing or two from his manager, Guus Hiddink who was one of the few Chelsea people to keep their heads above the parapet.

As I said before, we now have a fantastic final to look forward to. United'd men against the boys performance against Arsenal was brilliant.

The way they went to work on Arsene Wenger's team was breathtaking to watch, United resembled a skilled surgeon as they cut their way through time and time again with pinpoint precision.

The one thing that has stuck in most Arsenal fans craws, is the fact that they just seemed to roll over and give up. It's the one thing you never want to see your team doing.

As a fan, you know there will be good days and bad days, days when the final pass does not come off, days when it just won't go in. You're prepared for them, but the one thing that is inexcusable is a lack of fight, and a lack of trying. Arsenal seemed guilty of both for the most part, and now the manager will have to start again in the summer.

Barcelona's midgets against monsters performance lst night was equally brilliant. Chelsea may not have deserved to lose, but Barcelona definitely deserved to go through.

And whie I do not feel sorry for Chelsea or it's players, I do feel sorry for their fans. They had victory ripped from their grasp in the final moments, and then they had to sit through their players making idiots of themselves and the club.

And while some Chelsea and EPL fans are pointing to a conspiracy between UEFA, Michel Platini, and the referee to get Barcelona into the final, they are only kidding themselves.

It may have been the final that UEFA wanted, but you can't point the finger of blame at anyone. And if you have to, point it at Drogba. How many one on ones with Valdes did he miss?

twitter / WillieGannon