In an incredible night in Munich, when Chelsea had won their maiden UEFA Champions League in 2011/12, all eyes rested upon Didier Drogba whose final kick of the ball (at the time) for his beloved club had bestowed the greatest European footballing honour upon the London club.
However, the then-Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech’s contribution to the cause was equally significant, if not more. Six years later, on Wednesday night at Camp Nou, when Chelsea needed yet another jaw-dropping performance to not only wrest control of the tie from Barcelona but salvage their fast-unravelling season, Thibaut Courtois failed spectacularly.
The recent blitzkrieg of Liverpool or the swashbuckling squad of Paris Saint-Germain has often deceived football fanatics in believing that attacking with unbridled enthusiasm could help a team making a deep run in Europe, yet it is the Edersons and Gianluigi Buffons whose temperament below the bar make the difference.
In all of the last three UEFA Champions League finals, it was barely a surprise that the winning team did not concede more than once — Keylor Navas, on two occasions and Marc-Andre ter Stegen on one occasion, even Jan Oblak, the losing finalist of the 2016 UEFA Champions League final held at Milan, stood up tall to impeccable opposition attackers.
Courtois, however, conceded on Wednesday even before half of the Chelsea first-team had an opportunity to touch the ball. Lionel Messi, in the second minute, sent the Belgian ’keeper sprawling on the floor as he netted his second goal against Chelsea in consecutive games through a classic nutmeg. Having failed to affect games in his eight previous fixtures against Chelsea, Messi single-handedly ensured Barcelona’s qualification in his ninth and tenth game against the London club.
While his equaliser at Stamford Bridge came due to an unfortunate mistake from Andreas Christensen, Barcelona’s second goal of the night at Camp Nou was orchestrated by the Argentine magician when he recovered the ball off Cesc Fabregas at the halfway line. Barcelona’s leading goalscorer pulled as many as five Chelsea shirts towards him and set up Ousmane Dembele, who had found himself in space due to Luis Suarez’s diagonal run, for the Frenchman’s first goal for the Catalan club.
Dembele’s time at his new club has been marred with injuries, but his stunning shot, which Courtois could only deflect to the roof of his net, was simply a mere demonstration of the prodigious attacker’s skillset. Messi killed off the game with yet another well-taken goal halfway through the second half, however, fingers would be raised at the visiting ’keeper as Courtois’ shortcomings became apparent once again.
“Our start was terrible, to concede after only two minutes, but after we tried to play football and at times we dominated the game and had chances to score. Over the two legs we have hit the post four times and this is very strange,” Antonio Conte admitted after the game and the Italian, whose tactics in Europe were once again spot on, was correct. Chelsea had outplayed Barcelona over two legs, creating the finest of chances and enjoying meaningful possession in advanced positions, forcing the La Liga leaders to sit deep into their own defensive third, yet the scoreline reflected something else.
“I think a fantastic player moved the final result and the qualification because in these two legs, Lionel Messi moved the final result. He scored three goals and made an assist for Dembele,” said Conte acknowledging that Chelsea did not have any answers to the sensational Argentine, but much of Chelsea’s misgivings over both legs were the fault of their own doings, as has been the case for rest of the season.
The oft-underrated N’Golo Kante had been instrumental in Chelsea’s brave showing, as were the likes of Willian and Marcos Alonso, but a quiet night from Eden Hazard, who started in his favoured position, forced the visitors’ hands.
“It is a pity but I must be very proud of the commitment of my players. They gave everything and we have to continue in this way, with this will to fight and desire to fight together,” a defeated Conte exclaimed after the game. But Chelsea need results and soon, for the club and their manager are quickly running out of time to salvage anything from this season.
Barcelona, although have qualified with a comfortable scoreline, stumbled at times against the fifth-best club in England.
Should they aim to reclaim their position at pinnacle of Europe, Ernesto Valverde’s side must showcase exalted performances in the next rounds, for the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool will pose much tougher challenges and only Messi’s brilliance will not be enough for triumphant endeavours.
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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 13:08:40 IST