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Longest 45 Minutes Ever

Chelsea – with 10 men – beat Barcelona to advance to Champions League Final

I’m too giddy to write anything very coherent so I’m just going to spill some random thoughts on Chelsea’s remarkable, against-all-odds defeat of the defending Champions League champs.  I really didn’t think the Blues would have a more dramatic victory this season than the one over Napoli at Stamford Bridge to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.  Fortunately, I was wrong, as today’s team effort has to be one of the most dramatic wins in the club’s history.

The first half was pretty disastrous for Chelsea.  Once Barcelona went up 2-0, the match had vibes of a rout.  A few minutes before Barcelona’s second goal there was the bizarre red card for John Terry.  Bizarre not so much because he didn’t deserve it – he probably did, though a yellow card would’ve sufficed given the heft of the game – but because it was such a remarkably dumb thing to do.  Particularly dumb coming from the team captain!  I just don’t get how he could weather the first game with such diligence and poise only to throw everything away by kneeing Sanchez in the back.  It’s still unbelievable.  Now Terry will have to watch the Final from the stands.

After the disappointment of the Terry ejection, the Ramires goal was a surreal lifeline for Chelsea.  Once again, Lampard hit Ramires with a terrific pass, then Ramires calmly chipped the keeper for the crucial away goal.  Beautiful goal, and the timing couldn’t have been better for keeping Chelsea’s hopes alive for the second half.

Gary Cahill had to leave the game early on when he tweaked his hammy.  Frankly, I thought Chelsea was defensively doomed when Bosingwa jogged on as Cahill’s replacement.  Ironically, two of the Chelsea players I recently wrote should be transferred this summer were on the pitch by the end of the match:  Kalou and Torres.  At first (after coming on late in the second half), Kalou and Torres were up to their regular shenanigans – passing the ball to the other team and not taking advantage of the precious few scoring opportunities (Kalou squandered one chance that baffled the commentators).

But then, in the 90th minute, redemption for Fernando Torres.  He got on the end of a long clearance from Ivanovic, very coolly sidestepped Barcelona’s keeper Valdes, and slid in the goal that sealed Chelsea’s trip to the Final in Munich.  Earlier in the game it had crossed my mind how sweet it would be if Torres could get a heroic goal after the critically panned season he (and fans) have endured.  Amazingly, it actually happened.

If possible, this match was even more nerve fraying than the first leg at Stamford Bridge.  Almost the entire second half took place in front of Chelsea’s goal.  I just don’t get how this could be the same Chelsea team that floundered against so many lesser Premier League opponents this year.  How has Di Matteo been able to create such a cohesive unit?  The Blues’ defensive discipline was remarkable and Petr Cech had one of the best games of his career.

The downside of today’s win is that it felt like the Champions League Final.  It was such an epic effort by Chelsea that I fear the actual Final next month may seem a bit anticlimactic.  Another downer is the number of key Chelsea players who will miss the Final due to yellow card accumulation:  Ivanovic, Ramires, Meireles, and of course Terry.  UEFA needs to respect fans and allow the best players to play in the Final by clearing the card slate after the semifinals.

What a night for Chelsea fans!  This unexpected Champions League run goes a long way toward redeeming this season’s travails.  I don’t know which opponent I’d prefer for Chelsea in the Final between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.  For now, I don’t really care.  I’m just going to enjoy the fact that Chelsea somehow has a ticket to Munich!

Thoughts on Chelsea’s Champions League shocker?  Feel free to share below…

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Winning Ugly

Chelsea squeaks past Benfica 2-1 to reach Champions League semis

Well, you win some, you lose some, and sometimes you win with your opponent’s flames licking at your heels.  Benfica was certainly the hotter team Wednesday night, predictably enough, since they had the deficit to overcome.  Despite Di Matteo’s wise warnings against complacency leading up to the match, Chelsea looked rather casual and frequently sloppy for much of the game.  Benfica looked hungry and quite eager to stamp their ticket to Barcelona for the semifinal round.

It wasn’t Chelsea’s best effort by a long shot (Ramires’ soul-draining tap-in miss characterized Chelsea’s evening).  The Blues showed little of the cohesiveness and discipline they had in the away leg win.  The Stamford Bridge crowd seemed puzzled by the team’s performance and roared with relief when Raul Meireles slammed home an amazing (and frankly rare by his standards) shot in extra time to seal the victory.  But a win is a win and it sure is fun to have the Blues back in the Champions League final four (for the first time since 2009 when they also played Barcelona).  It’s a major bonus to fans who have watched Chelsea’s Premier League season sputter and stall for months.

So Chelsea will host Barcelona in the first semifinal leg on Wednesday, April 18.  I can hardly wait!  I really wish the first leg was in Barcelona because it seems the team with home field advantage in the second game often has the upper hand.  Still, it’s the Champions League semifinals and after the season Chelsea’s had, fans feel like this is living on borrowed time.  I plan to enjoy the ride, even if it is a steep uphill drive against Barcelona.

Here’s hoping Chelsea can get their act together and seize the opportunity.  It’s so difficult and rare to reach the Champions League final four.  For several Chelsea vets, this may be their last opportunity to win the tournament.  And while you certainly can’t overlook the next couple Premier League matches – Wigan tomorrow and Fulham Monday – as both opponents are playing well at the moment (and they’re the kind of matches that have really tripped up the Blues this season), the primary focus must be defeating Barcelona.  It’s the last chance to convert the forgettable 2011-2012 season to an unforgettable one.

How do you think Chelsea will fare against Barcelona in the first semifinal leg?

Blues Best Benfica

Chelsea defeats Benfica 1-0 in first leg of Champions League quarterfinal

Where has this defensive discipline been all season for Chelsea?  For most of the match at Benfica yesterday they looked like the stubborn Chelsea defense of old.  Even Cech looked much better than he’s been for much of this season with several fine saves.  Sure Benfica threatened here and there, but the back four of Luiz, Terry, Cole, and a very surprising Ferreira remained focused, unified, and got the job done.

When I initially heard Di Matteo was starting Kalou and Mikel, I was a bit concerned.  They’ve both had rough seasons, particularly Kalou who has barely earned a start this year.  But, they were both spry, didn’t seem a bit rusty, kept mistakes at bay, and had an all-around excellent game.  Kalou even punched in the goal via a smart pass from Torres.  Speaking of, Fernando had a solid outing as well.  Like many other Chelsea fans, I wish he’d go on a scoring rampage, but the important thing is to keep winning and he definitely helped Chelsea do that yesterday.

Surprisingly, Mata had an off night.  He seemed tired (rightly so after all the big games he’s played in such a short span) and I was surprised he wasn’t subbed in the second half.

Ramires drove me nuts with his poor final passes, until the qualities I admire about his game actually initiated Chelsea’s goal.  It was his acceleration and tenacity that got the ball to Torres up the right wing, which was followed by Torres’ pass in to Kalou who scored.

It was pleasing to see Chelsea take care of business so matter-of-factly, with no major defensives gaffes and no goals allowed.  It was also great to see them get the result using several players who haven’t been in the lineup much recently (wish Malouda had also participated) – that must be a morale booster for both starters and bench-warmers, as well as good for locker room harmony.

So now, with things looking grim in the Premier League for Chelsea, the club finds itself one game away from a Champions League semifinal spot.  Who would’ve thought that was a remote possibility back in December?  Benfica visits Stamford Bridge next Wednesday, April 4 for the return leg where Chelsea will have to resist the urge to relax with their 1-0 lead, and remain vigilant to finish off sure-to-be-feisty Benfica.

Will Chelsea advance to the Champions League semifinals?