Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Game, Set-Piece and Match
These two sides have produced some grim encounters over the last few years, but this one bore no resemblance to the unbearably tight aerial slugfests of the recent past. With respect to Jorge Valdano, this particular stick had no excrement hanging from it.
Full credit to Chelsea for pulling themselves up by the bootstraps in the second half, but there are some serious question marks hovering over their defence, especially with a daunting semi-final against the fluent, incisive Barca side to come.
If there was an object lesson to be drawn from the game, it was the value of variety, as well as accuracy, from set-pieces. In a game such as this, where fierce challenges were bound to produce plenty of fouls, set-pieces were always going to play their part. And Fabio Aurelio gave a masterclass in the opening period.
His first delivery from deep on the right was floated into the box superbly; well-weighted, and at an ideal height. The result was plenty of concern in the Chelsea box, and a panicky dash off his line from Peter Cech...who has never been quite the same player since his debilitating head injury (just ask Turkey).
When the Liverpool left-back found himself over another dead ball in a similar position, Cech had clearly readied himself for another dangerous delivery in the same area...leaving the near post unguarded. And the kick (and goal) was an absolute gem, a perfect example of out-thinking the opposition keeper.
Comes the third kick, from a similar position, and the Chelsea defence is in total disarray. Will he go the near post? Another floater? It was the latter, perfectly delivered again, and the uncertainty and panic in the minds of the Chelsea defence surely contributed to the clumsy foul on Xabi Alonso that produced the penalty.
Then, the second half, and Chelsea too showed that they could bamboozle their opposition from a dead-ball situation.
Soon after the first goal (for which Pepe Reina received more blame than he deserved, frankly, the deflection coming so late), a 25-yard free kick for the home side, just to the right of centre. Didier Drogba takes it, and it's a traditional inside-of-the-foot curver, just missing the right-hand upright.
A few minutes later: same situation, same position. This time, three different Chelsea players converge on the ball, and Reina is partly unsighted by the jumble of bodies hovering around the area (not to mention the wall). And the kick is the exact opposite: a scorching outside-of-the-foot rocket, which Reina sees late and is helpless to stop.
So much for the set-pieces. Can Chelsea get past Guardiola's brilliant unit?
I think the odds have been stacked against them by the suspension to Ashley Cole for the first leg. On his day, Cole is capable of nullifying even the finest wingers, as Cristiano Ronaldo would remember from the Euro 2004 quarter-final. Without him, Chelsea might find Lionel Messi impossible to contain. Cech, too, has become a weak link for Guus Hiddink's side.
I'm picking Barca, although Hiddink's motivational powers are not to be underestimated. In any event, given the quality of football they have purveyed all season, it would be only fitting if Barca were to lift the trophy in Rome.