This spring break, I had the chance to visit a couple of friends who were studying abroad in Barcelona. After booking my trip, it just so happened that my stay in Barcelona would end up falling perfectly on the second leg of the enthralling Champions League matchup between Barcelona and Chelsea. It was my dream to attend a Champions League match live, and there would be no better one to watch than this. On one side, as a Chelsea supporter, I would have the opportunity to watch the Blues carry on with their Champion’s league campaign, led by an unrelenting duo in Eden Hazard and Willian. On the other side, I coveted the prospect of witnessing Lionel Messi’s greatness in the prime of his career. To me, this was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and one that I could not bear to miss. Unfortunately for me, a matchup as exciting and captivating as this one comes with a very hefty price tag. Upon looking at the price of a single ticket, my dreams were instantly crushed. Despite the experience and atmosphere that would accompany such an event, four-hundred euros for what were undoubtedly the worst seats in the Camp Nou was an amount I, regrettably, could not cough up.
So, I made due with what I had and pursued my next best option. I would immerse myself in the Catalonian culture and experience the game in a lively sports bar. But, finding an authentic Spanish sports bar proved tougher than it seemed, so my friends and I ultimately decided to watch the game at The George Payne, an Irish sports pub with rave reviews. Come game day, the atmosphere was electric (maybe too electric). In fact, it was so electric that we showed up an hour and a half before kickoff thinking we would easily be seated, but were instead surprised to find ourselves standing for the entirety of the game. By the end, our legs and bodies were aching, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way (well a seat would’ve been nice). The pain was well worth the excitement of this deeply sought-after match.
So far, the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League has been filled with gripping drama and intrigue. When Chelsea and Barcelona clashed at the Camp Nou on March 14th for the second leg of their tie, there was no shortage of entertainment. In the first leg, Chelsea held their own with the Blaugrana (FCB), drawing 1-1. Notably, after going scoreless through several matches against Chelsea, Lionel Messi finally ended his drought in dramatic fashion to level the score at 1-1 after Willian’s scintillating strike that put the Blues ahead. Going into the second leg, I knew that Barcelona would have the advantage for numerous reasons. Primarily, they were playing at home, and it’s nearly impossible to get a result away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou. That being said, it’s hard to forget about that magical night in 2012 when Chelsea came back from a 2-0 deficit to level the game and advance to the Champions League final (which they went on to win), with an astonishing 10 men. The circumstances were different this time though, as Barcelona secured that all-important away goal through Messi, which they had failed to do in 2012 at the Bridge. Thus, coming into the second leg, Barcelona would be less exposed if Chelsea were to get an away goal, as that would force extra time rather than cause them to advance with a tie.
Still, the football world was very excited about the “rematch” between these two clubs, at such a critical juncture in the season. When the lineups were announced, I was a bit shocked to see that Antonio Conte selected new signing Olivier Giroud ahead of Álvaro Morata. Morata was bought in the summer for a sumptuous fee of sixty million pounds, a new club record. Morata began the season beautifully, scoring at will. But, his form has dipped dramatically lately, and he has fallen out of favor with Conte. That being said, he is a Spanish striker who came from Real Madrid. He has ample experience in Spanish football – especially playing against Barcelona (with Juventus as well) – and Chelsea spent such a large sum to get production in exactly these types of matches.
Once the match began, it did not take long for Messi to make an impact. In merely the third minute, Messi squeezed an effort past Thibaut Courtois, the Belgian keeper for Chelsea. Coming down the right flank, the Argentine tried for a cheeky give-and-go with Ousmane Dembélé, only to take a deflection to Luis Suarez who subsequently sent him through one-on-one with Courtois. With virtually no angle, it seemed impossible that anything other than a corner kick would come out of the run. But, the little magician found a pocket right in between the legs of Courtois to give Barcelona the very early lead. Although typically a stalwart in defense, Courtois really should have done better to parry Messi’s effort. Immediately, I knew that this meant trouble for Chelsea. They were now down 2-1 on aggregate, and Barcelona’s attack looked formidable, to say the least.
Nonetheless, the Blues were not going down without a fight. Firing right back, Chelsea pressed on and looked awfully dangerous. Led by Hazard and Willian, Chelsea threw men forward and had numerous runs of good possession in the final third. However, Barcelona’s resolute defense was able to keep the Blues out, despite their high press.
Even though Chelsea had a few opportunities though, Barcelona dominated the ball and dictated the game for the most part, and it wasn’t long before they added to their lead. In the twentieth minute, Messi stole the ball at midfield and went off on one of his glorious one-man runs, touching it by two of Chelsea’s defenders until he was one-on-one at the edge of the box. With all eyes on him, he was able to slip a pass across the box to a wide-open Dembélé, who unleashed a beautiful effort into the top left corner of the net. This was a critical moment for Barcelona and Dembélé, who was signed at the end of the summer but had spent most of the year sidelined with injury.
Now up 3-1 on aggregate, Barcelona was cruising and in total control. The play became a bit more level though, and Chelsea was able to create a couple great opportunities. In the 37th minute, Willian raced down the left flank before cutting it back for the oncoming Marcos Alonso, whose shot was parried by Marc-André Ter Stegen, the goalkeeper for Barcelona, but only to Olivier Giroud, who had his volley again blocked by another Barcelona defender. Alonso, a Spaniard, has a rich history with Barcelona as well. His great-grandfather played for Real Madrid, his father played for Barcelona, and he started his career at Real Madrid. Surely, that goal would’ve meant a lot to him, but unfortunately, he struck it right at the hands of Ter Stegan for an easy save. Only two minutes later, another golden opportunity presented itself. Through brilliant interplay, N’Golo Kanté managed to weave through Barcelona’s defense, only to waste the shot, sending it wide right. Not known to be a finisher, Kanté really should’ve done better either by putting it away (as he should have) or by at least leaving the ball for the oncoming Cesc Fabregas, who would’ve had a clean hit with his preferred right foot.
Had these two opportunities not been squandered, the outcome and dynamic of the game would’ve been fundamentally changed (like Ramires’s goal did in 2012), but Chelsea was not destined to advance to the quarterfinals this year. Nothing seemed to be going their way. In the 49th minute, Alonso went down in the box, in what seemingly appeared to be an obvious penalty kick, but the referee wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Then, in the 63rd minute, adding fuel to the already blazing fire, Messi tallied another to his astonishing goalscoring record in the Champions League, with a fantastic hit that nutmegged Courtois (again). At that point, the game was all but over for Chelsea, and their hopes of advancing died with Messi’s strike.
Hazard’s deep run late in the match typified this sentiment. In the 77th minute, Fabregas played Hazard through on the right flank, and with three Barcelona players surrounding him, he still managed to squeeze free and get a cross into the box. Unfortunately for Chelsea though, there were no Blues to be found, which must’ve made Hazard even more furious. Personally, and with a heavy heart, I think Hazard will swap Chelsea for a club like Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich. Having already won the Premier League with Chelsea, Hazard has made it clear that winning the Champions League is one of his biggest ambitions, and I think Chelsea’s lack of ability to contend in the Champions League over the last few years is getting to him.
As a Chelsea fan, I was disappointed to see such an outcome, but I respected the glory that was produced by Messi and his teammates. Although the Blues’ run has ended, I am extremely excited for the quarterfinals, which should continue to be riveting and must-watch TV.
“Barcelona vs. Chelsea | 2017-18 UEFA Champions League Highlights.” YouTube, uploaded by Fox Sports, 14 March 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hhiD-TKYqHk