Clash of the giants: Chelsea v Barcelona

Wednesday April 18 2012 has been bookmarked in many Blues fans’ diaries for a while: Chelsea FC host FC Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League. The questions on everyone’ lips is: can Chelsea beat the defending Champions? The London outfit will need to be armed with a more potent weapon than grievance if they are to beat a vastly superior Barcelona.
And so Di Matteo and Pep Guardiola meet again: at the turn of the century Di Matteo and Guardiola represented both clubs as players as Barcelona and Chelsea were paired together in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Ten goals were dished up between them in two spectacular games with the Catalans, coached by Louis Van Gaal, progressing 6-4 on aggregrate.
The recent history between the clubs is rich, but turbulent. Chelsea can’t forget the injustice of May 2009 when Norwegian referee Tom Ovrebo rejected a series of penalty claims. Michael Essien’s goal had taken Chelsea to the edge of the Champions League final to be played in Rome, until Iniesta scored a spetacular goal with seconds left to seal Chelsea’s fate. Barcelona progressed on the away-goals-rule and Guus Hiddink and his team felt hard done by. Stamford Bridge still feels hurt: revenge is on the mind of every Chelsea faithful.
But grievance alone will not be enough to contain and tackle Barcelona. The Catalonian giants have won the Champions League twice since 2009 and have the best player on the planet in their ranks. The legion of admirers for Guardiola and his tiki-taka-team is ever growing. Barcelona’s free-flowing, and at times mind-blowing, play saw them cruise past AC Milan in the quarter-finals. Messi and co simply deliver mesmerizing football.
That must be worrying for Di Matteo, but the caretaker coach of Chelsea has proved his mettle with eight wins out of nine in the Premier League and Sunday’s rampant victory over London rivals Tottenham in the FA Cup. Appointed as interim head coach on March 4 Di Matteo has been prepared to take though decisions: he dropped Lampard in the first leg of the quarter-finals against Benfica, which paid off handsomely with 1-0 win. The media credited Di Matteo with having produced a masterclass of team selection. Remember how Villas-Boas was massacred in the press for leaving Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard on the bench when Napoli defeated Chelsea 3-1 in the second round of the Champions League.
Another masterclass in team selection is required from Di Matteo when his team take the field on Wednesday. It will be intriguing to see how the Italian sets up his XI. Di Matteo relishes the chance to play Barcelona and is genuinely excited at the prospect. Moreover, he said: “ Barcelona do have weaknesses, you just need to exploit them.” He didn’t elaborate on what those weaknesses precisely are, but Barcelona’s vulnerabilities are not difficult to pinpoint: Gerard Pique at centre-back has looked a bit peaky this season. Pressure on the inconsistent Piqué may lead to openings for Chelsea. Left-back is another troublesome position for Barcelona: with Eric Abidal having had a liver transplant last week, Adriano, the versatile Brazilian, can fill in. Alternatively, Carlos Puyol can move across from centre-back, which would leave Javier Mascherano exposed in the air.  The fragile Barcelona backline might be good prey for Fernando Torres, accustomed with getting behind Barcelona’s high defensive line from his time at Atletico Madrid.
Or will Di Matteo go for the brawn of Didier Drogba?  Whatever way the interim coach will deploy his men on Wednesday – the inclusion or exclusion of Frank Lampard being another absorbing subplot – it will be key to produce a disciplined effort and not focus solely on Lionel Messi. Di Matteo recognizes this: “It is not about containing one player. Barcelona have a lot of players that can hurt us. We have to operate as a team to prevent danger.”
The 42 year-old Swiss born Italian admits to having watched Arsenal’s 2-1 victory over Barcelona at the Emirates 14 months ago in the round of 16. Wenger’s team soaked up huge amounts of Catalonian pressure before scoring late break-away goals, with André Arshavin sending the Arsenal crowd into pandemonium. It is a fine recipe for success against Guardiola and his artists and Di Matteo will thus be tempted to use the pace of Ramires, Meireles and Kalou. It will without doubt be a difficult balancing act for Di Matteo.
Chelsea, a club in decline since that infamous game against Barcelona in 2009, will consider this test as a significant marker of its progress. Victory on Wednesday, but crucially over two legs, would be a testimony of Di Matteo as a dynamic coach, pointing a derailed squad in the right direction. It may encourage Abramovich to rethink his strategy to hire short-term mercenaries, who have to bring  Champions League glory but ultimately fail to deliver. What is more, the decisions of referee Ovrebo and Iniesta’s goal  will at last have been avenged.