By JOHN BOSCHINI
Considering the nature of their domestic season, Chelsea sealing a berth in the UEFA Champions League final at Barcelona's expense would be have to be considered the shock of the year. But here are the Blues, 90 minutes away from doing just that.
Chelsea’s gritty defending and opportunistic scoring, combined with a fair bit of luck, gives them a 1-0 lead over Barcelona heading back to the Camp Nou for the second leg of their UEFA Champions League semifinal. Despite the lead, Barcelona still have to be considered strong favorites to advance considering their imperious form at home this season. However, a home defeat to Real Madrid on Saturday has ruined the aura of invincibility that normally surrounds the defending champions.
The task of playing four massive games in a row is beginning to take its toll on Chelsea. David Luiz is still out with injury while Didier Drogba is questionable for today's game. Barcelona are coming to the end of their own run of trying fixtures while the curious benching of Gerard Pique could speak to backroom turmoil. Lionel Messi will undoubtedly be Barcelona's focal point and will likely start despite missing training on Sunday due to illness.
Here is a look forward to today's massive Champions League clash:
TV: Fox Soccer Channel, 2:45 p.m.
The First Leg: For 90 minutes on a rainy Wednesday night in London, Barcelona dominated every statistical category except for the important one. The Catalan club held 79 percent possession, hit the woodwork twice and spurned chance after chance while Chelsea struck with their only shot on goal of the game. Taking advantage of a Messi turnover, Lampard found Ramires with a long ball down the left flank. The Brazilian international's low cross was turned in from close range by Drogba.
Despite Barcelona's numerous chances, Chelsea did turn in one of their best defensive performances of the season. The Blues' back line blocked 10 of Barcelona's 24 shots while Petr Cech pulled off stellar saves on shots from Carles Puyol and Cesc Fabregas.
The Lowdown: Barcelona are no strangers to needing a result at home in the Champions League. Last season, Arsenal pulled off an equally memorable home victory against Barcelona only to be stifled in the second leg, and AC Milan were defensively sound in this year's quarterfinals before conceding three goals at the Camp Nou.
It's unlikely Barcelona will be as wasteful in front of goal on Tuesday as they were last week. Messi has scored seven goals in the his last two Champions League games at home while Barcelona's defense has conceded only four times at Camp Nou all tournament. It's very unlikely Chelsea will be able to keep Barcelona for a full 90 minutes so an away goal is vital. If that were to happen, Barcelona will need to score three to advance.
Chelsea's offensive fortunes will likely depend on the fitness of Drogba. The Ivorian's physical presence and superior hold-up play could frustrate Barcelona and create a significant mismatch if 5-foot-9 Javier Mascherano starts in central defense. If Drogba is ruled out, Fernando Torres will need rediscover his form quickly. The Spanish international has shown an improvement in his finishing but is still struggling to beat defenders one on one, something he will need to do with limited service from a defensive Chelsea setup.
It's been more than nine years since Barcelona have lost three games in a row, but even a victory doesn't guarantee a place in the final. Expect Chelsea to defend deep like they did at Stamford Bridge but if Barcelona scores early, Chelsea might feel the need to venture forward.
What do you think of today's game? Can Chelsea hold on for the unlikely upset or will Barcelona run rampant at home?
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