Barcelona's hopes of retaining the Champions League crown were last night crushed as Chelsea snatched a dramatic comeback to draw 2-2 at the Camp Nou, in what was one of the most pulsating matches in the history of the tournament.
Days after conceding the La Liga title to fierce rivals Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola's side let a two-goal lead slip and missed a second-half penalty to allow 10-man Chelsea to book their place in the Champions League final in Munich on May 19th.
Despite carrying a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Chelsea were heavily expected to crumble under the pressure of Barcelona's tiki-taka style, the attractive quick-passing, free-form footballing philosophy for which they are so internationally acclaimed. However, the sheer determination and resilience which Chelsea demonstrated last night justified one of football greatest truisms - that 'football isn't played on paper'.
Having been criticised for his team selection against Real Madrid, Pep Guardiola chose to recall Alexis Sanchez, Gerard Pique and Isaac Cuenca, in place of Cristian Tello, Dani Alves and Adriano. Scorer of Chelsea's first-leg winner Didier Drogba once again led the line as Chelsea fielded an unchanged side.
The Chelsea fans, on the highest rows of the vertiginous stadium, could hardly be heard amongst the 'El Cant del Barça' which reverberated around the crowd as Barcelona fans showed their backing to their recently underperforming side.
The unlikeliest of Barcelona goalscorers, Sergio Busquets, drew the teams level on aggregate on 35 minutes when he poked the ball home after Isaac Cuenca's clever cut-back from the corner of the box before the game swung heavily in the Catalan giant's favour.
Just a minute after conceding, Chelsea and former-England captain, John Terry, inexplicably kneed Alexis Sanchez in the back, sending the Chilean to the floor. Although Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir did not see the foul, his assistant informed him of Terry's rashness and the defender was duly dismissed. It appeared that all of Chelsea's patience and organisation was ruined by one selfish and stupid act from their most experienced of professionals. As if defending away from home to the best passing side in the world with eleven men was difficult enough, now Chelsea had to cling on for nearly an hour with a man short.
The Barcelona players sniffed blood and laid siege on Chelsea's goal, Andres Iniesta finding the net in the 43rd minute to put Barcelona ahead in the tie for the first time. Messi, in what Marca claimed was his "worst night" in a Barcelona shirt, drove towards goal before playing an inch-perfect pass into the feet of Iniesta, on the left-hand side of the box, and the midfielder coolly slotted home across the body of Petr Cech.
2-0 down and reduced to 10 men, Chelsea's task of reaching the Champions League final seemed mission impossible but as they showed in the first leg, they are not prepared to give up and a fantastic goal by Ramires on the stroke of half-time gave Chelsea a glimmer of hope.
On a rare attack, Chelsea broke with pace and Frank Lampard played a teasing ball in between Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano, which Ramires surged onto before impudently lobbing the ball over Valdes's reach and into the net. A devastating counter-attack and one that would send Chelsea through on away goals.
Barcelona, with 78% possession in the first half, continued to pour forward in waves during the second period and their early pressure paid off when Cesc Fabregas was tripped by Drogba in the penalty area. Lionel Messi, who had not scored in seven games against Chelsea, struck the crossbar with his penalty as the footballing gods smiled down on Chelsea once more.
Messi hit the post for a second time in the final fifteen minutes and Alexis Sanchez had a goal narrowly ruled out for offside as Chelsea defended with an admirable courage and desire.
Barcelona refused to rule out hope, as Dani Alves and Puyol joined the attack in what appeared to be an incredible 1-5-4 formation but having committed too many men forward, Chelsea broke once again. A long clearance out of defence was well controlled by substitute Fernando Torres on the half-way line and with nobody in his immediate vicinity, the £50 million signing raced towards goal before dropping a shoulder and rounded Valdes to secure a monumental moment for Roberto di Matteo's side. The striker, who has been much criticised in his sixteen months at the club, had secured Chelsea's place in Munich, an incredible feat for the English side, who had looked dead and buried under the reign of Andre Villas-Boas only three months ago.
To recover in the fashion they did, against the most prolific attacking team on the planet, a side that have now accumulated a staggering 104 goals at the Camp Nou this season, was nothing short of extraordinary, and one of the most remarkable performances in European history, albeit with a hint of good fortune. It marked one of the great David vs Goliath battles and Pep Guardiola's Barcelona must now rely on the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao if they are to secure any form of silverware.
In what is ultimately Pep Guardiola's darkest period as manager of his boyhood club, it will now be a test of his managerial credentials and character to see if Barcelona can bounce back next season.
"I've transmitted this crazy theme of 'you have to go out and attack, attack, attack'," said Guardiola. "Maybe it's a lesson for the future? We have to find the way to attack better."
"I try to figure out what to say when looking at the team, about what we did wrong to not reach the final and I can't think of anything...The opposition was always there, very defensive and good on the counter-attack...We did everything we could but we couldn't score another goal and football is about scoring."
Many point a finger at the fact that David Villa's absence has been costly in Barcelona's decline while their centre-back partnership seems the leakiest it has been in previous seasons. One thing that we should all consider is that this is not a crisis; Barcelona football club will be back and when they do, expect them to reign supreme in Europe once more.