Plenty of scores to settle as Barca size up Chelsea challenge

IF CHELSEA thought they had shaken off some kind of eternal European foe in defeating Liverpool, after one of the Champions League’s all-time classic matches, then they are about to feel like Butch and Sundance did every time they looked over their shoulders and saw the Pinkerton detectives relentlessly appearing on the horizon to pursue them.

Barcelona are those menacing men on horseback, and after eight Champions League meetings this decade, 29 goals, three wins each and two draws, it’s little wonder that footballers of the calibre of Xavi Hernández, Leo Messi, Andrés Iniesta and Dani Alves gave wary but determined answers when peppered with questions about Guus Hiddink’s side the day after the night before.

Messi, for example, owes Chelsea one. The greatest game he ever played, in his opinion, was while winning 2-1 at Stamford Bridge during Barca’s march to the victory over Arsenal in the 2006 Paris final. But a horrific thigh-high kung fu kick by Asier del Horno, which earned Chelsea’s full back a red card, also did the Argentinean sufficient muscle damage for him to ultimately miss the final and refuse to celebrate with his team mates or touch the cup out of pure anger. As soon as the ‘C’ word was uttered yesterday, he rolled his eyes in arch-comedy style. “They are a club which have been responsible for my best and worst Champions League moments, and from what I’ve seen of the game against Liverpool it’s clear that either one of them could eventually have gone through.

“There’s no point in denying that they will be complicated games but I hope that they will be beautiful spectacles, too. We know, more or less, how they like to play and we also have experience of how much offensive power they possess. It’s going to be a real tussle. They are probably a more physical team but we’ve evolved a bit from the last time we played them, which was a group game.

“I’d vote for the result the last time we played them in a knockout tie — they were two great, great nights. It’s a fantastic contest to look forward to but we’ve a league to fight for first with two matches before I’d even like to start thinking about Chelsea again.”

Rivalries feed off details and sometimes it takes the slightest spark for that rivalry to become a feud. This was the tie, remember, which caused Anders Frisk to quit refereeing. This was the tie which Frank Lampard said produced his favourite ever European goal (the chip over Victor Valdés for 1-1 in the 2-2 draw in October 2006). Red cards (Drogba and Del Horno), own goals (Terry and Tiago Motta) — Barca v Chelsea has it all. If things had gone differently, Dani Alves might have been playing in blue this time around. But now he’s glad he’s not. “It’s an interesting draw because I was on the point of joining Chelsea, not Barca, from Seville but they acted in a strange way,” recalls the Brazilian.

“One day there was total agreement on price, wages and so on, the next day there wasn’t. My fortune was that the breakdown allowed a really big club, Barca, to come in for me instead.” Ouch.

And of course, Guus Hiddink, everyone’s man of the moment, was Joan Laporta’s original choice to coach Barca when he won the presidential elections back in 2003. There was an interview but the salary was too low. Now they meet again.

“I’ve always admired Guus for his footballing ethos and for how he is as a man — a terrific guy,” admitted the Barca president.

“Chelsea did brilliantly to sign him during the season and it’s thanks to him they face us in this semi.”

Midfield dynamos, Xavi and Iniesta, simply know that nerves will be shredded and reputations can be too. “Chelsea possess an enormous attacking capacity but I believe we are good enough to win a tie on our strengths, not worry about the opposition,” confirmed Iniesta. “We are in the best season of our history and I don’t want Chelsea to spoil that,” added Xavi.

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