I had said before the contest between Chelsea and Barcelona would be a contest of league styles. Barca had yet to face an English side and this would be a vastly different context for the Spanish giants. Chelsea would not allow them the space for the same kind of free-flowing football they enjoy at home in La Liga.
The first leg displayed what I meant (although I didn’t expect Chelsea to play such a negative game, practically lining up ten men in the mouth of the goal alongside Petr Cech) as some of the best looks Barca had on goal resulted in them getting dispossessed when they spent too much time on the ball. Henry hesitating before a decent chance in the box. Messi getting shut down by Boswinga. And so on. Barca are used to more freedom in La Liga to allow finesse and beauty a bigger stage. The kind of freedom and space which allowed them to score six goals while visiting Real Madrid last weekend.
Yesterday, though, while Chelsea continued to deny Barca the kind of breathing room Messi and co. desired, the vistors triumphed anyway.
As we all know: anything can happen in this sport, and three minutes into stoppage time, Andreas Iniesta latched onto Lionel Messi’s pass first time and hooked it into the net. Cech had no chance. With the away goal rule, Chelsea were ousted from the competition instantaneously.
Chelsea shut down Barca’s beautiful, flowing style for over 180 minutes. But all it took was a spark of Messi brilliance followed by a pristine Iniesta strike for the match to be turned upon it’s head.
After my preview of this tie, I had been accused of being biased toward EPL and against La Liga. I responded that while the English Premier League is my favorite, I love watching La Liga. I know many fans of the English game who feel the same way. It’s easy to be drawn in by the attractive football displayed weekly by clubs like Barca, Valencia, Sevilla and both Madrids. The English league is exciting for it’s intensity and tempo, but the modern Spanish league encapsulates what we mean when we say: The Beautiful Game. Lionel Messi is about the most watchable football player on the planet. His combination of technique, creativity and daring means one doesn’t know what he’ll do at any given moment, but it’ll probably be beautiful. I had felt Chelsea’s harder, “uglier” game would prevail. Though I didn’t want it to. I wanted beauty to win.
How do La Liga supporters respond to watching the EPL? What’s the view from the other direction? Does the EPL seem to0 coarse and brutish after watching La Liga?
Beauty is subjective. A Peter Crouch bicycle kick may look like a stork being hit in the stomach with a bowling ball to many, but it has a distinct visceral appeal for me and I’m apt to go home and find the clip on the web later that night so I can view it several more times. Players like Ashley Young, Fernando Torres, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robinho can all find that intersection where form and function come together perfectly to create that transcendent footballing moment we all love to see. La Liga’s best players may find it more often, but it does thrive in the EPL in it’s own way.
I’ve seen Chelsea play much more attractive football than they brought to the arena for Barca. Their method of containment made their game uglier than it could have been, but the big rule in architecture also holds true for football: form follows function. Hiddink thought his first leg a success so he found no reason to change his form and risk giving Barcelona space to do any damage. He thought one goal was enough to go through, but he should have gone for the goal in Barcelona. The negative approach has left him with nothing.
Beauty had a winner in stoppage time. Long live The Beautiful Game.