IT WAS supposed to be Beauty versus the Beast at the Camp Nou last night but no one expected that it was Beauty who would lack teeth.
Jack Charlton liked to say that what his Irish teams did was not pretty but effective. For most of an absorbing but frustrating 90 minutes last night, Barcelona were pretty but not effective, all tantalising promise but no final delivery.
The essential character of the game was set from the opening few minutes, with Petr Cech booting the first of numerous back-passes the length of the pitch. By contrast, Barcelona were all flashing triangles and passes strung together like jewels on a necklace. But the brightest star of them all, Lionel Messi, personified his team’s performance, his ample threat never quite matched by the coup de grace.
Twelve minutes in, he fooled Bosingwa by going on the outside, forcing the defender — away from home in more senses than one — to crudely bring him to ground. But the Argentine showed his clay feet by floating the free-kick to nowhere.
Credit Chelsea for erecting a wall of yellow in front of the Catalans — and similarly coloured cards for Ballack and Alex showed they weren’t inclined to stand back in admiration — but too often Barca tried to play through rather than around or behind their opponents. Like Arsenal in their pomp, Barca seemed determined to score the perfect goal but, as often as not, they overcooked the ingredients, were let down by the final ball or a Chelsea boot made a timely interception.
So instead of the spotlight being on the attacking Holy Trinity of Messi, Eto’o and Henry, it was brilliant playmaker Iniesta, bursting through from midfield, who most threatened to light up the night. But even his best efforts finally came to nought.
The vast bulk of the game might have been played in the visitors’ half but at 0-0 it needed only one sight of goal for Chelsea to pull off a classic smash and grab. And Marquez almost handed it to them seven minutes before the break, his woefully underhit back pass offering Didier Drogba — hitherto more visible in his own box — two chances to punish the error, both of which he wasted.
Barcelona, increasingly laboured and predictable in the first half, added some badly needed tempo to the mix in the second, urgency replacing patience as the minutes ticked by without a goal to show for their dominance of the ball.
Indeed a full 70 minutes had elapsed before Barca finally created a chance that was the equal of Drogba’s in the first half. And it was all Samuel Eto’o’s own work, his nutmeg on John Terry and surging on goal foxed only by Cech’s heel.
But that was about it from Eto’o on the night, and he would later be called ashore along with Thierry Henry. Like Messi, their evening had been more tasty cameo than five-star blockbuster. And in the end, it was the subs who almost broke the deadlock, both Bojan and Hleb squandering great opportunities to give Barca the advantage as the clock wound down.
But even if the home side also had a clear cut penalty claim to throw into the mix, Chelsea’s discipline, hard work and effort hardly deserved that late, late fate on a night when industry smothered invention, steel stunted style, and Barca discovered the Premier League is an altogether tougher nut to crack than La Liga.
The absence of Marquez and Puyol means that Barca’s already suspect defence will be even more vulnerable for next week’s second leg at Stamford Bridge. And in front of their home fans, Guus Hiddink will hardly set up his team to protect and survive as they did last night. But that, in turn, might only serve to sharpen Barca’s fabled cutting edge.
Game on, as they say.
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