You are viewing the content for Saturday 25 February 2006

It’s only half-time

By Liam Mackey
"CHELSEA are almost out of the Champions’ League," said the man on the television news late on Wednesday night, making it sound like their imminent exit from the competition is a mere technicality, a matter of formal ratification in the Nou Camp.

John Giles put it even more baldly, suggesting the English champions "haven’t a prayer in the second leg", though following a mild interjection from Liam Brady, the great man allowed that there was, of course, a chance that they could yet turn it around.

Certainly, Barcelona are now hot favourites to progress, but you don’t need the threat of avian flu to know that counting chickens is fraught with peril. A certain game last year should have thought us that lesson.

You might remember it: the Champions’ League final in Istanbul, Liverpool three down to AC Milan at half-time, the travelling Merseyside army with nothing to lift their spirits only black humour as the chant of: "We’re going to win 4-3," rang around the Ataturk Stadium.

For those of us who were charged with describing the events against a tight deadline, the state of play at the break was a godsend.

Milan hadn’t only taken control of the game, they had put Liverpool to the sword, ripping them apart with the lethal fluency of their football. For the hard-pressed hack, seeking to gain an advantage on the clock, the situation was ideal: during the half-time interval you could virtually write your full-time report, a savvy treatise on the technical superiority of Italy’s finest, how the limitations of English grit had been cruelly exposed; emphasis on the yawning gulf between the island and the continent etc.

Job done. Even the Scouser who interrupted my typing to say: "Don’t forget to put in that we’re going to win on pens," was laughing through his tears as he did so.

And then? Well, I think you know what happened next. Frankly, the hard-pressed hack still isn’t the better of it.

Back to the present. Chelsea need to score twice and concede none in Barcelona, and that will be a hugely difficult task against one of the best sides in Europe for some years. But at least they will have the advantage of pitting 11 against 11, no small matter when the opposition is as skilled at retaining possession and exploiting space as the Catalans.

In the argument over Del Horno’s sending off, I’m one of those who thinks a red card was harsh. Yes, it was a wild lunge, in which the Chelsea full-back had no intention of playing the ball, but the contact with Messi was full-body, neither was hurt and, irritatingly, both sought to seek advantage by doing the dying swan bit.

A yellow card would have sufficed, and maybe the referee would have been so-minded if, cannily, a mob of Barca players hadn’t sought to turn a drama into a crisis. Instead, an already riveting contest was disfigured by Chelsea’s reduction to 10, and Jose Mourinho was given a get-out clause and the chance to blather on about injustice and impurity and all the rest of it.

It also meant that he could deflect attention away from two stonewall penalties for the visitors: John Terry’s own version of full-body contact and Geremi’s blatant handball when his outstretched arm blocked a goalbound shot.

Not that you’d expect the Chelsea boss to sing the praises of Barcelona but, rightly, everybody else did. Football has been coming down with new Maradonas for years, but Lionel Messi looks the real deal. For defenders, he’s a nightmare: they know what he’s going to do - drop the right shoulder and ghost past them on the left - but they still can’t stop him. And, of course, Messi is not alone. Even when Ronaldinho had a comparatively quiet game, it was his blazing run which helped set up the winner.

Yet Chelsea deserve a lot of credit for the way they took the game to Barca after half-time and, later, the backs-against-the-wall fight they showed in protecting their goal when the visitors threatened to put the tie beyond them. But, despite the premature obituaries, we haven’t reached that stage yet.

For champions, Chelsea show a rare underdog spirit, and they will need every bit of it when they go to the Nou Camp. The force is with Barcelona but expect the Blues to rage against the dying of the light.

The same cannot be said with any conviction about Real Madrid. Given Arsenal’s recent woes and Madrid’s La Liga resurgence, it was hardly a surprise that one of our Angry Fans correspondents last week predicted a hammering for Wenger’s men. My own response was it depended on which Madrid showed up - the Real or the fake.

Now we know - unless, of course, the fake is actually real.

Yes, Arsenal were terrific, and should have brought an even more formidable lead back to Highbury, but Madrid were awful. Beckham hardly got in a telling cross, Zidane looked jaded and Ronaldo seemed to carry around his unhappiness at the Bernabeu like a ball and chain.

So now Madrid need to score twice in Highbury and Chelsea need to score twice in the Nou Camp. The odds are both will fail - but of the two, I’d be much more inclined to give Chelsea the fighting chance.

I mean, it’s not as if Barcelona are Middlesbrough, like.