Champions League – Iniesta breaks Chelsea hearts
The Spain international struck a screamer in the 93rd minute to cancel out Michael Essien‘s equally, if not more, stunning early strike to win the tie on the away goals rule following last week’s goalless stalemate at the Camp Nou.
Chelsea were left to reflect on what might have been, although initial reaction to defeat was one of anger after referee Tom Ovrebo denied the hosts several strong penalty appeals.
The full-time whistle sparked shocking scenes as Didier Drogba remonstrated with the Norwegian official and had to be restrained before he turned to television cameras and gave his strong opinions on the referee’s performance.
The hosts had looked favourites to seal a second consecutive final appearance, having led since the ninth minute and enjoyed a man advantage for the final 25 minutes after Eric Abidal was dismissed for a professional foul.
But Iniesta’s sensational strike into the top right hand corner – Barcelona’s first attempt on target throughout the 90 minutes – deep into time added on dashed Guus Hiddink’s hopes of reaching the final in his first season in charge of the Blues.
The effective defensive showing that secured a goalless draw for Chelsea last week had prompted sharp criticism from Catalonia, but Hiddink is in the business of getting results, not making friends.
Chelsea began the return leg in a similarly blunt vein, packing the defence in a bid to keep out Barca, who enjoyed initial superiority in the game and had far more possession than their hosts.
Chelsea were forced to rely on long balls forward to give their backline relief during the opening exchanges, and it was from one such pass, played downfield by Petr Cech, that led to the opening goal on nine minutes.
The keeper’s punt was headed on by Drogba, the ball eventually making its way to Frank Lampard who saw his cross deflected and loop up towards Essien on the edge of the box.
There was nothing anti-football about the Ghanaian’s strike. Indeed, a more spectacular finish will not be seen this year. The midfielder struck the ball with a volley so sweet it arrowed towards the top corner and went in off the underside of the crossbar.
Understandably, the goal settled Chelsea, who began to play the ball around with more confidence and more purpose.
And their efforts could easily have been rewarded, as not once, twice, or even three times, but on four occasions, Chelsea had big appeals turned down by Mr Ovrebo.
First, marauding full-back Dani Alves was caught out at the back by some lovely control by Florent Malouda who then fell under the Brazilian’s clumsy challenge, apparently a yard inside the box. Ovrebo saw the foul, but deemed the offence to have taken place outside the area.
Didier Drogba then saw his blasted effort from the resulting free-kick well saved by Victor Valdes before John Terry headed wide moments later with Alex stretching to get a telling touch at the far post.
Chelsea were enjoying their best spell of the game, and soon after they had a second, more convincing, penalty appeal waved away.
Drogba was at the centre of the action once again, the Ivorian brilliantly bringing down Lampard’s through pass only for Abidal to seemingly bring him down. Again the official opted not to give a spot kick.
It was a bad miss, so perhaps there was a certain sense of justice when the France international did receive his marching orders on 66 minutes, after he halted Nicolas Anelka‘s run on goal by clipping his compatriot’s ankles.
That said, the foul was far less clear cut than the original offence and Barca were right to feel aggrieved at having to see out the remainder of the game with a man less.
Earlier, Drogba had passed up the best chance of the night to give the hosts the luxury of a two-goal lead after Anelka had played him in on goal. Drogba opted to cut inside the challenge of Gerard Pique, who was left on his backside, but his shot was well blocked by Valdes. Malouda fired the follow-up into the side-netting.
The third handball appeal came on 82 minutes, as Chelsea looked for the second goal that surely would have seen them home. Anelka flicked the ball past Pique, who clearly stopped its progress with his hand, yet once again the referee refused to point to the spot.
A second goal eluded Chelsea, who knew full well that at just 1-0 a single Barca goal would change everything. And so it was, as almost inevitably Iniesta pounced on the disappointing Lionel Messi’s square pass on the edge of the area to crash a shot past Cech and break Chelsea hearts.
Yet still there was time for more late drama as Michael Ballack‘s goalbound shot hit a Barca arm even deeper into injury time. For a final time, the referee dismissed the appeals, prompting Ballack to go on an amazing rant at the official, earning himself a booking.
The yellow card would have seen the German miss the final, but the referee’s performance had already deprived him, and Chelsea, of that.