CHELSEAï¿½S defensive discipline earned them a precious goalless draw against Barcelona last night to make them slight favourites to reach their second successive Champions League final.
Coach Guus Hiddinkï¿½s pre-match prediction that the first leg of this semi-final tie would be saturated in goals proved incorrect as Chelsea put in a highly competent defensive shift.
Hiddinkï¿½s tactic of giving holding roles to both John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack worked superbly, and Lionel Messi was marked out of the contest by Jose Bosingwa.
Barcaï¿½s strike force of Samuel Etoï¿½o, Messi and Thierry Henry have scored 90 goals between them in all competitions so far this season.
But Henry proved to be Barcaï¿½s real danger man when he twice forced Petr Cech into important saves in the opening half, and might have had a penalty when he appeared to have been pulled down by Bosingwa late on.
However, to a man, Chelsea were defiant and disciplined with full-backs Branislav Ivanovic and Bosingwa faultless, while John Terry and Alex were solid in the middle.
Hiddink will be more than pleased with the nightï¿½s work, and Chelsea should have enough in their artillery to go on and finish the job in the return match next week.
The hosts almost grabbed an early lead when a free-kick from the left reached Samuel Etoï¿½o at the far post after Cech misread the flight of the ball.
However, the Cameroon strikerï¿½s far-post header flashed across the face of the goal, with Rafael Marquez unable to connect.
Cech was in trouble again in the 11th minute when he surprisingly opted to punch clear a cross by Eric Abidal.
Luckily for the Czech, none of the Barcelona forwards were quick enough to capitalise on his error.
But Barcelona soon gained control of the midfield and when Messi slipped Daniel Alves clear, the full-backï¿½s dangerous low cross was cleared decisively by Alex.
Moments later, Etoï¿½o tried his luck from 20 yards but his low drive was more than a little wayward and Cech was untroubled by his effort.
In the 28th minute, Xavi almost broke the deadlock with a long-range drive that flashed past Cechï¿½s right-hand upright. Moments later Ballack was booked for a foul on Henry.
In the 31st minute, the former Arsenal striker unleashed an angled drive that Cech gathered at the near post.
Cech pulled out another outstanding save to deny Henry again in the 34th minute as Barcelona continued to test Chelseaï¿½s defensive resolve at every opportunity.
Florent Malouda appeared to catch Alves in an off-the-ball incident and moments later the pair were involved in another spat which German referee Wolfgang Stark again chose to ignore.
But Chelsea should have been ahead when a dreadful back pass by Marquez put Didier Drogba clear in the 38th minute, but the Ivorianï¿½s shot was twice saved superbly by Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
Barcelona suffered a major blow in the 50th minute when Marquez went down clutching the back of his knee and was carried off with possible ligament damage. He was immediately replaced by Carles Puyol.
But the Catalans won a corner in the 58th minute from which Messi volleyed high over the crossbar from 20 yards.
However whenever the home side did break through they found Cech in their way. In the 61st minute he proved his worth yet again, when he blocked a ferocious angled drive from Alves.
In the 67th minute the former Sevilla star sent a free-kick just over the crossbar and Cech denied Etoï¿½o with a fabulous save when the Barca striker got free of Alex for the first time in the 69th minute.
Frank Lampard was surprisingly replaced by Juliano Belletti in the 71st minute as Chelsea looked to protect the stalemate.
Puyol was booked for a foul on Michael Essien in the 75th minute, and the card rules him out of the return leg at Stamford Bridge.
Barcelona substitute Bojan Krkic could have won the first leg for his side but he somehow headed a cross from Alves over the bar from point-blank range, and there was still time for fellow sub Alexander Hleb to be denied by another great save from Cech in stoppage time. It was their last chance and it could have costly repercussions for Pep Guardiola and his side at Stamford Bridge next week.
Substitutes for Barcelona: Puyol for Marquez (52), Bojan for Etoï¿½o (82), Hleb for Henry (87).
Substitutes for Chelsea: Belletti for Lampard (71), Anelka for Ballack (90).
Referee: Wolfgang Stark (Germany).
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