The captain got sent off. The other centre half lasted 12 minutes. Just about everybody who could not afford to get booked got booked. Jose Bosingwa played centre half for 64 minutes. In the Nou Camp. Against Lionel Messi and the best team in the world – a team who have now scored 104 goals at home this season. And they have, remember, no permanent manager.
Yet somehow, against all the odds, logic, expectation, the formbook, the coaching manuals and every credible assessment of how to run a football club (continuity, long-term planning) or win a football match at the Nou Camp (keep 10 men on the field, don’t let Barcelona score two goals before half-time or give away a penalty), Chelsea have made it to the Champions League final.
They get there on one leg, missing John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles – and hoping against hope that Gary Cahill and David Luiz return from injury – but do not bet against them in whatever circumstance. Never bet against them after this.
Oh, what a night! It was all stacked against the Blues who forged a memorable victory.
In the stadium in which Manchester United went into injury time as losers and emerged European champions, Chelsea did the impossible: they pulled off something new under the sun, something never seen before, a rearguard action of heroic dimensions.
Inter Milan progressed to a Champions League final here when down to 10 men two years ago, but they actually lost 1-0 on the night. Not only did Chelsea win through with a numerical disadvantage, they did not lose the game, either.
Fernando Torres equalised, late, one on one, as Barcelona’s players sunk to the same turf that caressed Bayern Munich’s disbelieving, vanquished team here in 1999. Those lucky enough to have witnessed both nights were reunited with a memory; that of stunned incomprehension at what had unfolded coupled with an intense feeling of elation.
Stuff purism; this was one of the great nights, simply because it was about more than just beauty and technique. It was about bravery, determination, a refusal to bow, a triumph of sheer will. It was not Chelsea’s destiny to be in Munich; it was their destiny to leave Catalonia defeated, as most teams do. They changed the narrative; they made this happen, somehow.
There is a scene at the end of the film The Right Stuff. General Chuck Yeager has crashed his Lockheed NF-104A fighter jet trying to set a new altitude record. He ejects at the last moment, the aircraft in flames. Presumed dead, as smoke from the wreckage floats across the desert plain, a figure can be seen limping over the horizon.
Battered, bloodied, charred, he still manages to walk in defiance to the ambulance. As the smouldering dot makes its shuffling path, a bystander peers quizzically. ‘Is that a man?’ he asks. ‘Yes,’ comes the reply. ‘That’s a man.’ And that is Chelsea, too.
Who knows what state they will be in when they finally limp into Munich’s Allianz Arena on May 19? But in spirit they have the right stuff, too. Yeager talked of pushing the envelope, and that is what Chelsea have done against Barcelona. Forget the dreary advocates of purity, and consider what a phenomenal achievement it is to defeat Barcelona over three hours of football with a plainly inferior group of players.
Think of the concentration, think of the resolve. Think of how it must have felt when captain John Terry was sent off and, shortly after, Barcelona increased their lead to 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate. Then consider that, from there, Chelsea drew the game 2-2.
It was at the lowest point, two goals and a man down, that one mocking amateur bookie offered odds of 999-1 for Chelsea to draw on Betfair – and found a taker. Upside £1, downside £999, the look on his face when Torres scored that equalizer: priceless.
If Chelsea were brave, there was foolishness, too, and it came in the unlikeliest form: that of Terry, so often their rock, so nearly the millstone around their neck. The conspiracy theorists will gather en masse again, claiming Chelsea will be denied their captain in Munich by dark UEFA-inspired forces. But there really is no excuse this time.
Whether Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez went down too easily or Terry’s red card punishment fitted his crime is immaterial. The fact is he committed a completely unnecessary, impressively sneaky foul that rebounded personally and professionally in the worst way possible: a red card and out of the Final.
There will be the standard advances made on Terry’s behalf, the standard sinister motives offered for Barcelona’s supposed hold over referees, but ignore them. This was a clear-cut case. To knee an opponent in the back of the leg is a foul. Strike one. The seriousness of the offence is intensified if committed unnecessarily off the ball rather than in play. Strike two. And if seen, will most certainly provoke a red card. Strike three and out.
Terry, normally the most focused of minds under pressure, allowed his game to be touched by an entirely random factor the moment he assaulted Sanchez. It was out of character in its in discipline and a dereliction of the duty he holds most proud. Having saved Chelsea time and again at Stamford Bridge, on this occasion his senses left him, and he left his team-mates in the lurch.
Sanchez enjoyed his fall but Terry can have no complaints. His initial claim that he did not act deliberately was later converted to an admission of guilt and an apology. He has saved his teammates enough times to be forgiven, but that is no mitigation. With Cahill already off injured, it was his duty to take no chances and he could easily have cost Chelsea the game.
That he did not is testament to an outstanding group whose fortunes have been transformed late in the season by interim manager Roberto Di Matteo. Not that this triumph can be explained in tactical terms; there is no book that describes what a coach should do when he loses every central defender and the spiritual guide of his team, although it helps to have Petr Cech in-goal.
Watching him move around Chelsea’s team hotel yesterday, a tall, bookish-looking young man in smart spectacles, Clark Kent to the Nou Camp’s Superman, it was hard to comprehend the two personas. Not that Cech’s appearance was all that confounded logical minds. Why did Chelsea reach Munich? Because they really, really wanted to.
Every decade or so, a game comes along that is impervious to common sense. Sir Alex Ferguson said it best. Chelsea, bloody hell.