Wednesday, October 18, 2006


We'll Meet Again

When the teams in the Champions’ League group stages were allocated into their pots a few months ago, you could almost have put money on Chelsea – still, bizarrely, ranked in the second tier – being drawn against their great rivals of the last couple of years, Barcelona FC. They meet in this year’s competition for the first time tomorrow morning.

The perception in European football seems to be that, for all Chelsea’s extravagant (some might say obscene) spending, they just can’t buy the superb fluency and class possessed by the current Nou Camp squad. On the evidence of last year’s competition, I’d have to agree.

One of the most memorable ties I remember watching in the Champions’ League was another Barca v. Chelsea battle, one of the 1999/2000 quarter-finals. At that time too, the Catalans were considered the flag-bearers of elegance and Latin artistry in the European game, with Luis Figo, Rivaldo, Luis Enrique and the rest producing much sumptuous football.

Barca’s status, in other words, was similar to that of Frank Rijkaard’s team now. Chelsea’s, however, couldn’t have been more different.

The eccentric Gianluca Vialli, prone to confusing pronouncements and inopportune emotional outbursts, was in charge of Chelsea. The club was known in some quarters as the Chelsea Retirement Village; many veterans from the continental aristoclubs had settled in West London, but most of them gave the impression of being spent forces.

In other words, it looked a mismatch.

Ye Chelsea went within seven minutes of knocking the then favourites out of the competition. And in coming so close, they owed a very great deal to one of those “retirees” – Gianfranco Zola.

It was the Sardinian with the engaging smile who scored the opener at Stamford Bridge – a superb free kick – before laying on the second for Tore Andre Flo. Zola was at the heart of every attack, prompting and feinting, driving the Barca defenders to despair.

Chelsea ended up winning the home tie 3-1, but an overly defensive approach at the Nou Camp saw Barca reverse that result, before scoring two decisive goals in extra time.

What relevance does all this have for the current competition?

For all the excellence of their expensive roster, Chelsea still don’t have a Zola. Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard and Michael Essien are midfielders of great drive and technical skill; Didier Drogba and Andriy Shevchenko possess strength, poise and enviable finishing ability. But they are all, essentially, predictable players for the most part. They don’t often produce the sort of inspired, uncoachable pass or shimmy that Zola, and a select few others, produced so regularly over the years.

For that reason alone, I’m picking Barca to once again go further in the competition than their English rivals.

If the two make it to the KO stage, could they meet again before the final? The rules for Champions League draws are pretty confusing..
c'etait moi
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