Lionel Messi has provided countless moments of magic this season, but on Wednesday it was one glaring and uncharacteristic error that put Barcelona’s hopes of retaining the Champions League title in jeopardy.
Messi, the finest player in soccer and rapidly making his claim as an all-time great, was left furious with himself as his rare mistake led to the only goal of Barca’s 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the semifinal first leg.
Normally a model of efficiency, Messi surrendered possession in the middle of the field, allowing Chelsea to break. After Frank Lampard released Brazilian defender Ramires down the left, the ball made its way across to Didier Drogba, who slid home the only goal of the game.
Barca must now find a way to overturn Chelsea’s advantage in the return leg at its own Camp Nou stadium next Tuesday, if it is to avoid relinquishing the trophy it won by beating Manchester United in last year’s final.
Wednesday’s mistake was all the more remarkable considering how the Spanish side totally dominated the game otherwise. Chelsea’s win was more than an upset; it spawned one of the most extraordinary anomalies since soccer fell in love with statistics a decade ago.
Coach Pep Guardiola's visitors controlled 72 percent of the possession, a high mark in any game, but especially so away from home. The reigning champion incredibly completed 782 successful passes to Chelsea's 194, yet was still unable to find a way through and now faces a stern challenge.
"I would say the favorites are now Chelsea," Guardiola said. "If [soccer] is about counting possession we would win every game. The game is about putting the ball in the goal."
For Chelsea to stand a chance in this home-and-home clash, a victory at Stamford Bridge was imperative. Achieving it required every one of three factors – ferocious defending, opportunism in front of goal and pure, unadulterated luck.
The Chelsea backline that looked so fragile in the closing weeks of former coach Andre Villas-Boas' doomed reign has added steel under interim boss Roberto Di Matteo, with captain John Terry, newcomer Gary Cahill and goalkeeper Petr Cech all nerveless and outstanding.
Even so, some fortune was required, and if Alexis Sanchez's flick over Cech had crept under the crossbar early on instead of crashing against it, the result might have been different. Barca was denied by the woodwork again in injury time at the end of the game, when Pedro curled a low shot past Cech's reach but against the post.
"It is a big win for us," Drogba said. "When you play a team like Barcelona you know you are going to have to work hard, try not to get frustrated and make the most of your chances when they come."
Both teams now find themselves at something of a crossroads heading into the second leg. Barca will take on its hated rival Real Madrid on Saturday in a contest that could decide the Spanish La Liga title. Read Madrid is also coming off a shocking Champions League loss, having fallen to Bayern Munich in the first leg of the other semifinal Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Chelsea's best chance of returning to the Champions League next season would be to win it this year, as it is by no means guaranteed to finish in the top four in the English Premier League.
Yet this is the prize Chelsea craves more than any other, with owner Roman Abramovich's desire for this particular piece of silverware bordering on an obsession.
Wednesday brought that possibility a step closer, even if Barca felt it was the better side and could scarcely believe that it heads back to Spain empty handed.
Mark Twain likely didn't know much about soccer, but the adage he wrote about "lies, damned lies and statistics," has rarely rung so true.
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