With Barcelona back at Stamford Bridge for the first time in four years, it’s natural to take some time to remember the 93rd minute goal that sent Barcelona to Rome in 2009. With hindsight, the 20-yard blast from Andrés Iniesta serves as the symbolic beginning to Barça’s three years of world soccer dominance. It’s understandable that we’d use the Blaugrana’s return to West London as an opportunity to reflect on such a seminal event.
Only that’s not what has happened. Instead, you’ve been more likely to read the name Tom Henning Ørevbø than commentaries contextualizing Iniesta’s injury time rocket, which is pathetic. The Finnish referee who officiated Barcelona’s last venture to Stamford Brdige, Tom Henning Ørevbø should never take precedence over Andrés Iniesta.
What would have happened if Ørevbø’s made the right calls, the coverage wistfully implies, not bothering to question whether the premise is correct. Was Chelsea so wronged by the officials’ perceived mistakes that now, three years later, we should be treating this match as some kind of breaking point? What happened to all the other matches we’ve complained about over the years? Why aren’t we dusting off that indignation every time there’s a rematch?
Perhaps those matches stay in the closet because they didn’t happen in Champions League. They didn’t happen between Barcelona and Chelsea, and they didn’t happen in the capital of the English language-speaking soccer world.
It’s too easy to remember Michael Ballack assailing Ørevbø. It’s too easy to remember Didier Drogba’s post match tantrum. Did Eric Abival maybe get a harsh red card in that match? I don’t know. I forget. I haven’t seen that video in a while. I only know what I’ve seen over and over again, and after three years, I’m matching the story to those behaviors.
Surely, nobody would react like this unless they were truly wronged:
Never mind all the other times Chelsea has mustered disproportionately strong reactions to on-field setbacks. Particularly when Ballack was a regular at Stamford Bridge, no official was safe. It’s an attitude that not only can be traced back to José Mourinho’s days at Chelsea but has been endemic to all of Mourinho’s sides. The 2009 outbursts were the problem, not the symptom.
And so we’re left with a confluence of factors that have shaped history. You’ve got a high stakes event, clash of styles that fuels the fire, referee that seems to miss some calls, and team infamous for their on-field conniptions. Three years later, when the edges of our pictures are worn round like corners of old baseball cards, we’re left with an image painted by the most invested: Chelsea was cheated.
And they say history’s written by the victors. In this case, it was written by those who just kept talking.
What would have happened if Chelsea had held on? For the first time ever, there would have been a Champions League final rematch. Chelsea would have met Manchester United in Rome and either fulfilled the destiny Roman Abramovich bought or made United, winners of back-to-back Champions League titles, the blueprint for world soccer. As Graham Hunter recently noted to the BBC, Barcelona likely changes course, concluding they can’t compete with England’s strength in Europe. With their hybrid of Barcelona style and English strength, they end up trying to beat Real Madrid at their own game, a fight they’re not likely to win.
And we, the fans, lose out on three years of the best soccer we’ve ever seen. And rather than clubs all over the world trying to emulate Barcelona’s approach, we’re left with every team defaulting to double pivots, likely filled with converted central defenders. Does that sound exciting to you?
Of course, none of that has anything to do with Chelsea – and no Blues supporter wants to hear that their club’s loss was good for the game – but there’s no need for all the revisionism we’ve been subjected to over the last three days. Better to just focus on Wednesday, when two very different, very changed sides will take the pitch at Stamford Bridge.
Though many of Barça’s lead actors remain the same (Messi, Xavi, Iniesta, and Puyol, most prominently), they’ve gone from soccer hipsters devoted to early-70s style to an anachronism. Whereas the last hundred years of soccer have seen teams devote more and more personnel to defense, Barcelona’s recently turned the clock back 60 years. They’ve started playing four forwards (in a 3-3-4) just years after people were asking if one forward (4-5-1) was taking over the world. While many have suggested they’ll revert to four defenders (and a 4-3-3) against Chelsea, the motivation for deploying more attackers remains the same. The Blues are likely to sit back and make this into an affair where one or two counters can decide it, just like every other team that’s motivated Pep Guardiola to put his team in a time machine.
With Barcelona’s lack of strength in midfield, it would be ill-advised for Chelsea to do otherwise. While it’s tempting to say “if Barcelona’s going to be so attack-minded, we can be aggressive and try to catch them,” Chelsea has nobody in the middle of the park who can actually execute that vision. They don’t have a deep-lying distributor in the Andrea Pirlo mold. They don’t have a creator like Luka Modric. They have workhorses: Ramires, Michael Essien, Frank Lampard.
If Chelsea approaches their semifinal as they did 2009’s, it wouldn’t be the worst approach. Teams like Rubin Kazan and Inter Milan have had success relying on execution in transition. Teams that have tried to play with Barcelona? They’ve been less successful, with only Real Madrid feigning a challenge.
We might rue Chelsea sitting back, waiting for their chances, but it’s probably the best approach. The odds are long, but at least there are odds there.
But whatever happens, would it be too much to ask that we get though Wednesday’s broadcast without a mention of Tom Henning Ørevbø?
Chelsea vs. Barcelona kicks off at 2:45 p.m. ET on FX (not FOX Soccer). Just like yesterday, PST will be with you for live coverage through today’s game.