However unlikely it may seem, Chelsea, a club in turmoil just two months ago, full of players who know they won’t be at the club next year and led by an interim manager unsure of his own position, are 90 minutes away from the Champions League final.
If someone had predicted this in the wake of a 3-1 defeat away at Napoli in the first leg of the last 16, you’d have had them carted away to the funny farm but here they are in a scenario where even a defeat could see the Blues through to the final in Munich on May 19th.
A 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge against Barcelona was as good a result as Roberto di Matteo could have hoped for and it is sure to be a fascinating night in the Nou Camp on Tuesday.
Chelsea certainly had their fair share of fortune at Stamford Bridge – Di Matteo is turning out to be a lucky general – but their application and implementation of their tactical strategy was worthy of the result and they take on Pep Guardiola’s side at the best possible time.
It seems barely credible that people can be critical of this Barcelona team, a team that has won three trophies already this season, but such is modern football when a club the size of Barcelona suffer consecutive losses, even if the second was to a brilliant Real Madrid side.
I tipped the exact same bet last week in the first leg, only to be scuppered two minutes into added on time when Didier Drogba, not rolling around on the floor for the first time in the half, finished off a fine counter-attacking move.
I’m not going to join in the slightly hysterical reaction to two defeats on the bounce, but it is fair to say that some of the sparkle has disappeared from their incredibly high standards. Guardiola shuffled his pack against Madrid and got it wrong, but there are mitigating factors as to why Barca have not quite reached their usual dizzying heights in recent weeks.
David Villa’s absence is being felt more at this moment than at any time since he broke a leg in Japan in the World Club Cup as fatigue begins to take its toll on a relatively small squad, with even Lionel Messi’s performance levels dipping to those of a mere mortal in the past few matches.
It means Chelsea will never get a better chance of knocking out the world’s best team. Barcelona are the 7/25 favourites to win in 90 minutes, with the draw at 11/2 and Chelsea at 7/1.
But for me, Barcelona are too short, plain and simple. This is a Champions League semi-final, not a league match against some run-of-the-mill side and I just can’t be backing them at that price, no matter how obviously superior they are to Chelsea over the course of a season.
On the other hand, Chelsea don’t have to win so the 7/1 makes no appeal either – Saturday’s reverse to Madrid was Barcelona’s first home defeat for 55 games.
I think the best way to go is to look at the 31/10 that the first half finishes 0-0. I tipped the exact same bet last week in the first leg, only to be scuppered two minutes into added on time when Didier Drogba, not rolling around on the floor for the first time in the half, finished off a fine counter-attacking move to give the Blues their slender advantage.
As you can imagine, I was pretty annoyed having thought I’d survived the few Barcelona close things, but I’m not going to let it put me off going in on the same bet again.
My confidence lies in a combination of factors. I appreciate that no two games are ever the same, but Di Matteo is not going to vary his tactics.
Chelsea don’t have to score, so sitting deep and compact just like on Wednesday is just how they will play it again, and it just so happens to suit their personnel as well: John Terry and Gary Cahill, not the quickest centre-backs, love to defend the 18-yard box, where the play is in front of them and there is no space in behind where they can be exposed.
Barcelona will again be happy to monopolise the ball and bide their time – they are in no rush to score and will be confident of breaking through eventually when Chelsea legs start to tire – so it is a strange situation where the set up of the game actually suits both sides’ strengths.
And even though I don’t expect any attacking intent from Chelsea (they didn’t show any at home), Barca will still be wary of the sucker punch of an away goal and therefore I expect another tight, edgy affair, especially with Barca in arguably their most difficult patch of form for some time.
That makes the 31/10 on a goalless first half on the huge side and I’m happy to take the punt on that outcome again.
Recommended bet: 0-0 at half time @ 31/10
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