Tuesday, March 08, 2005

An Incredible Match

UEFA Champions League Round of 16
Chelsea 4 Barcelona 2 (Chelsea 5-4 on aggregate)

I hope you watched this match on ESPN2 this afternoon. I really do. This was a simply incredible night of soccer. The only thing that would have made this match better is if my beloved Newcastle United had been involved.

Going into the match, Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho had accused his Barcelona counterpart Frank Rijkaard of trying to influence referee Anders Frisk in the first leg of this Round of 16 matchup--while Rijkaard had accused Mourinho of "lies". A little frosty, to say the least.

Chelsea immediately struck--Eidur Gudjohnsen with a calm finish from an impressive Mateja Kezman cross. Chelsea were so dangerous on the counterattack tonight--they scored their second goal on an incisive counter; Joe Cole cut inside at pace and smacked a shot, which deflected off a Barcelona defender, leaving Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes stranded. Valdes palmed the ball away weakly, and Frank Lampard scored easily to make it 2-0 Chelsea on the night, 3-2 on aggregate.

But Chelsea weren't through. Almost immediately thereafter, Damien Duff slotted home after yet another counterattack to make it 3-0 (4-2). All this after just 22 minutes. I could not believe what I was watching; despite the fact that Barcelona still looked calm and cool on the ball, despite the fact they were dominating possession, Chelsea were up 3-0. It was remarkable. Jose Mourinho was ecstatic. This game was about to turn yet again, however.

The hand of Paulo Ferreira touched a Juliano Belletti cross into the box, giving Barcelona a penalty kick. The impressive Ronaldinho (FIFA's World Footballer of the Year), who had just missed a free header, smashed the penalty to Petr Cech's right, and gave Barca their lifeline.

The game was already headed for Instant Classic status, but it needed that little something special--just one more thing to cement the game in everyone's mind. Well, Ronaldinho followed up his penalty with one of the most amazing goals I have ever seen--it's so hard to properly describe it. The Brazilian superstar ended up with the ball at his feet just outside the 18 yard box, surrounded by three Chelsea defenders. Without moving his feet, he did some kind of hip swivel, a move not out of place in Rio's Carnival--the Chelsea defenders dropped their guard just enough to allow Ronaldinho to lift just his right foot and poke the ball past a bewildered Petr Cech. I cannot do this justice. I have no words to describe it. It was a moment of pure inspiration--a great goal in its own right, but an important goal in the match, because it made it 3-2 Chelsea on the night, but 4-4 on aggregate (with Barcelona owning the tiebreaker due to the fact they scored more goals away from home than Chelsea).

All of that was just in the first half.

The second half was up and down, end to end action, but without goals. Both Barcelona and Chelsea came very close, with Barca striker Samuel Eto'o especially culpable for a glaring miss. And, boy did Chelsea make him pay. John Terry scored on a header to give Chelsea the lead and, ultimately, the win--a goal shrouded in controversy as Barca thought that Ricardo Carvalho held Victor Valdes to keep him from the ball. I can't disagree. But the goal stood, and Chelsea had their victory.

My heart was pounding after this match. My pulse was racing. Matches like that are why I love soccer. I applaud both Chelsea and Barcelona for their ability on the field and their inability to play a defensive match. Jose Mourinho could have shut things down entirely after Chelsea's first goal, but he didn't, and he was rewarded in the end.

I hope you saw this match.

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