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Five Lessons from the Champions League Semifinals’ First Legs

Mario Gomez, Iker Casillas, Alvaro Arbeloa

1. They Are Playing for the Champions League Trophy, Not Our Entertainment

It’s hard to pick one symbolic moment coming out of these first legs of the Champions League semifinals, so I am going to go with my favorite: Didier Drogba, writhing on the ground and clutching the Drogba family jewels, as no less an authority on ball-kicking than Javier Mascherano stood over him in judgment. Somewhere a jukebox played The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment.”

The Champions League has a strange, kind of Treasure of Sierra Madre effect on football clubs — players, managers, fans, and tea ladies. They will do anything to get into the competition and even more to win it. As anyone who has ever been in lust can tell you, desire has consequences. And the consequence here was that long stretches of Tuesday’s and particularly Wednesday’s matches were not exactly sumptuous hymns to the beauty of football. At this point in the competition, matches are basically glorified fights. And if you’re looking at a tie as a fight, then the first legs often resembled this scene from Community.

‘Sup, indeed. I kept thinking of this while watching Real Madrid play Bayern Munich. In one- or two-minute bursts, this was a wonderfully fun match to watch. But I mean it when I say “bursts.” For every Bayern counterattack that looked like Tron light cycles racing forward, there would be a tedious sequence in which a quickly taken free kick was called back by referee Howard Webb. Every tackle seemed to require the calling of a quorum of players to point at one another and curse in different languages. Every free kick needed a meeting of the minds before Ronaldo or Arjen Robben skied the ball into the Bavarian night. Things never really got going. This is probably exactly how Real manager Jose Mourinho wanted it. There is no team better drilled, more patient, and more cynical than a Mourinho-managed side in full flight. When they are firing on all cylinders, Real can look like the most electric attacking team in the world, but when they’re not, they know how to slow a game down to an absolute crawl. Doesn’t hurt that they have Pepe, who could get into an argument in a room by himself.

This is a shame because both sides counter so gracefully, so quickly, that it had the potential to be a classic, with teams racing down the Allianz Arena pitch, end to end. Bayern in particular were, for lack of a better term, “channel surfing,” winning possessions off Real and firing passes from deep in their half into the “channels” downfield, where Franck Ribery, Robben, and Mario Gomez were running on to them.

You have to wonder if past experiences had Webb spooked a little bit. This semi was the biggest match the English whistle-blower had officiated since the World Cup final in 2010. That match infamously got away from Webb, with indiscipline breaking out all over the Soccer City pitch. It looked like he wasn’t going to let that happen again, even if it meant breaking the game down into staggered, two-minute runs of play.

The 2010 World Cup final came to mind again on Wednesday, while watching Chelsea and Barcelona. For the last several years, there has been a tactical debate surrounding football, largely brought about because of the possession-gobbling style of Barcelona (and the Spanish national team), which pits proactive (wanting the ball, creating chances, looking to score) against reactive (sitting back in defense, absorbing pressure, looking to score on the counterattack) football. Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian wrote a definitive piece about this tug of war following Holland and Spain’s tense 2010 World Cup final.

I wouldn’t really call Chelsea-Barca a tug of war, because only one team was pulling. Barcelona racked up 79 percent of possessions and took 24 shots, with six on target. Frank Lampard looked terrified to venture into the Barcelona half, leading Chelsea’s Juan Mata to comment, after the game, “This is not my idea of football. I like to have more of the ball and play, but today our game plan was a different one.”

It’s not really my idea of football either, and it wasn’t the most entertaining match, obviously. But it is not the responsibility of other teams to act as runway lights for Barcelona’s takeoffs and landings. For the last three years, Barca have run rampant over La Liga and Europe. And whenever anyone gets cynical and gets behind the ball, you’d think, to listen to Barca players and fans after the match, football dies a little bit.

So it wasn’t a 90-minute YouTube highlight reel. Guess what? John Mikel Obi does not care about your highlight reel. And Branislav Ivanovic doesn’t care about the glorious tradition of tika-taka football. And I don’t even think John Terry can find Barcelona on a map, to be honest. The only team I’ve seen really truly go at Barcelona this season and live to tell about it was Athletic Bilbao, who played out one of the games of the season against Guardiola’s men, 2-2, at the San Mames.

Chelsea cannot do that. For one thing, they are an aging, crusty bunch, not a group of Basque bravehearts with undying engines. And for another, you cannot give up three goals at home in the Champions League. If you do, you’d might as well scalp your tickets to Barcelona for the return leg.

Going Forward: Don’t get your hopes up. With the return legs back in Spain (Madrid and Barcelona hosting, respectively), I would not expect these matches to get any less chippy (on Bayern’s part) or defensive (on Chelsea’s part). Roberto Di Matteo’s job prospects are directly tied to whether he can get a result at the Camp Nou. I don’t think he’s going to choose next Tuesday’s second leg as the time where he starts becoming proactive.

2. Home Is Where the Heart Is

We learned just how important home-field advantage was in these two matches, but not for the reasons you might think:

A. Stamford Bridge is just a little bit smaller than Barcelona’s home ground (112 by 73 yards to the Camp Nou’s 115 by 74), but Chelsea made the field seem more narrow, clogging up the middle with two lines of four players and forcing Barca to play it wide to their Brazilian fullbacks, Dani Alves and Adriano.

I know, deep down inside, that Alves is one of the 15 best players in the world. But on Wednesday it felt like he would get the ball on the Barca flank, look up, think about crossing in to the 5-foot-7 Lionel Messi, and then just think to himself, “Yeah … not gonna do that.” A couple of weeks ago, in one of our hallucinatory live blogs, Brian Phillips and I talked about Barca missing Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s value as a second option. I think that’s true, and it’s also true that they miss David Villa as a line-leading forward (even if he often started out wide).

Barca weren’t just frustrated on the pitch, they were hampered by the weather above it. If the easiest (and possibly dumbest) cliche people level at Spanish teams is that they wouldn’t like it on a cold, wet night in insert-name-of-English-town, that cliche, like most cliches, had a bit of truth to it on Wednesday night in West London. Barcelona didn’t like it on this particular cold, wet night; they looked flat-footed and a bit miserable. Cesc Fabregas, only (nearly) one season into his Spanish homecoming, looked like an abandoned wet dog on the pitch (and he shot like one, too). So much about their possession-based attack is about the buildup, the tempo. It relies a lot on Barcelona players being able to pass with accuracy and control the ball cleanly. But the wet grass of The Bridge caused something of a service interruption. Passes were just a few inches off; balls that usually seemed tethered to Xavi or Iniesta’s boots awkwardly bounced astray.

Going Forward: The Camp Nou pitch will be as dry or slick or verdant or green or brown as Pep Guardiola wants it. And Barca will make that extra yard or two feel like miles.

B. About 15 minutes into the Bayern-Madrid game, Franck Ribery was brought down by either a stiff Bavarian breeze, the foot of Sergio Ramos, or a Tom Berenger sniper bullet from out of nowhere. Even to the naked eye, in real time, it looked dive-y. Hell, Ramos was making the diving hand gestures at Ribery before the Frenchman was even on the ground. But the Munich crowd went berserk, screaming for a penalty, and I swear I could see a bit of nerves on the part of the Madrid players; for a moment it looked like Webb might actually be swayed by the screaming crowd.

It was at that moment when I fully realized how important it would be for Bayern to get past Madrid. The Champions League final? It’s played on May 19. At the Allianz Arena in Munich.

Going Forward: Expect Madridistas to whistle while their team works. When Ribery or Robben go down they will not be greeted by the sounds of 50,000-plus Germans getting their backs. In the other tie, expect Barca to make the Camp Nou pitch feel as expansive as Chelsea made Stamford Bridge restrictive. In between the two legs, the Blues must go to Arsenal, for a match that could have serious implications for next season’s Champions League places. Guardiola will know this going into Tuesday night.

3. Chelsea’s Big Name Players Still Have Big Time Games

I know that sounds like I just walked off the set of a straight-to-on-demand Remember the Titans sequel, but watching Chelsea’s old guard get into the breach once more, it felt like a 2008 revival. Sometimes footballing reputations far outpace actual play. Chelsea’s English stars are some of the best examples of this phenomenon. If you just say, as some English commentators do, that Ashley Cole is the best left back in Europe, over and over again, people eventually start to believe it, if only out of sheer exhaustion. On Wednesday night, Cole played like it. He did a great job handling the variety of attackers Guardiola threw at him, saved the game by last-ditch clearing a Fabregas shot off the line in the 43rd minute and generally playing like, well, the best left back in Europe. All over the pitch, from Frank Lampard, who disposed Messi and started the attack that led to Chelsea’s goal, to Petr Cech, who was playing like Stephen-Hunt-Petr-Cech to the diving, time-wasting battering ram that is Drogba, all of Chelsea’s four-star players had four-star nights.

Going Forward: Count out Chelsea at your peril. When it has mattered most, no matter how many people were muttering, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” over their tombstones, Chelsea has found a way to keep themselves afloat and more so. Under Di Matteo especially they have seemingly embraced the underdog, back-against-the-wall routine. They did it against Napoli in the quarterfinals and they found a way to win against a misfiring Barcelona in the semis. Both of those victories came at home. It will take some kind of miracle to beat Barca, or hold them 0-0, at the Camp Nou.

4. Messi Is Not a Solo Artist

About 60 or so minutes into the Barca-Chelsea match, Messi — winner of the Ballon D’or for three straight years, Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer, ghostwriter for all of Dr. Dre’s rhymes on Chronic 2001 and inventor of the Brita filter — went weaving, bobbing, and brilliant-ing through the Chelsea defense. All by himself. Fabregas was trailing him, but seemed to pull up, preferring to take a spectator’s view of the Argentine rather than follow him into the box. I know Messi “opened up his groin,” according to the English commentator (I haven’t seen that episode of Grey’s Anatomy), but he looked a little out of sorts on Wednesday and a couple of times I could have sworn I saw him gesturing at his Barca teammates to cut one way or another. Yes, he is a footballing angel sent here from heaven. But he does need people to pass to. Too often on Wendesday he was dropped far too deep, forced to make slaloming runs from the center circle, or simply passed out of the passage of play by his own teammates.

Going Forward: Cheslea has been a historically frustrating team for Messi. Guardiola will likely position him higher up the pitch, in his more preferred false 9 position.

5. It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose, But What You Say After the Game

After the matches, Guardiola and Mourinho conducted a master class in expectation management in the postgame press conference. The Barca boss passive-aggressively denigrated Chelsea’s style (“The winner is always right, so tonight Chelsea had the right tactics”), while also managing the seemingly impossible feat of making Barcelona the underdogs (“Turning this tie around is a great challenge, and we accept the challenge, we’ll try to do it”). For his part, Jose Mourinho was a little more direct about everything: “We will be coming back to Munich again.” And, like Guardiola, he made the loss sound like a win: “My players showed what I had demanded from them yesterday: lust and hunger for success.”

Going Forward: Psychological preparation will be key over the next week. Expect Bayern and Chelsea to keep their powder dry and their mouths shut, while Guardiola and Mourinho work to shape the narrative. In many ways, the most important work for a manager is done before the game, in the lead-up, in the telling of the preamble. And nobody does a preamble like Guardiola and Mourinho.