Didier Drogba marked a superb display with the first-half winner as Chelsea produced a resilient performance to beat Barcelona 1-0 on Wednesday and take a narrow lead into the second leg of their Champions League semifinal.
In one of Chelsea’s few forays forward at Stamford Bridge, Drogba swept home a cross by Ramires in the second minute of first-half injury time to hand Barca its first Champions League loss in 14 months, leaving the contest delicately poised.
The Spanish giants were camped inside Chelsea’s half for almost the entire match but were denied by a mixture of poor finishing and brave defending. Gary Cahill was outstanding alongside centre-back partner John Terry to repeatedly deny Argentina forward Lionel Messi, who failed to score for only the second time in his last 15 matches.
“It will go down as one of our best performances,” said Terry, who has played with cracked ribs in recent weeks. “We had to be patient — we didn’t touch the ball in the first 10 or 15 minutes. It was a tireless performance.”
With a must-win “Clasico” against Real Madrid in the Spanish league to come on Saturday and then the return leg against Chelsea three days later, Barca has little time to regroup if it wants to reach the Champions League final for the third time in four years and become the first team to defend the title.
Much will be made of Barca’s inability to find an away goal — Alexis Sanchez and Pedro both hit the goal frame — yet Chelsea should be praised for its work rate, cohesion and discipline under almost constant pressure.
‘Didier Drogba was incredible. He was up there against some of the best in the world on his own but he holds it up and makes us play.’— Chelsea centre-back John Terry
Unbeaten in its last six games against Barcelona, Chelsea has been one of the few teams in the world to cause the Spanish giants problems in recent years.
And it did so again here, with the irrepressible Drogba giving Carles Puyol and Javier Mascherano — a midfielder playing out of position at centre back — trouble with his power on the rare times he managed to snaffle possession.
“Didier Drogba was incredible,” Terry said. “He was up there against some of the best in the world on his own but he holds it up and makes us play.”
Drogba’s goal came after a rare mistake in possession from Messi, allowing Frank Lampard to pick out the surging Ramires with a crossfield pass. The Brazil midfielder bore down on goal but crossed the ball across the area for Drogba to scuff a shot that still had enough to beat goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
It was his 38th Champions League goal, with only Messi having scored more since the 2003-04 season.
The last time Chelsea played against Barcelona — the highly charged second leg of their 2009 semifinal when the Spanish team progressed thanks to Andres Iniesta’s last-minute goal — an apoplectic Drogba left the pitch roaring abuse at a referee for which he received a three-game ban.
Three years on, he was all smiles as he lapped up the acclaim of the home fans.
“We have learned and we have improved from three years ago because we didn’t concede,” Drogba said. “The result is a good one and we will go there and try to score another goal.”
Barcelona should have been in front by then, however. Sanchez’s lob struck the bar in the ninth after a fine pass from Iniesta, Ashley Cole cleared off the line from Cesc Fabregas, who had earlier fluffed a shot wide with the goal at his mercy in the 17th.
Messi, man-marked by Raul Meireles, wasn’t at his electric best but still produced a couple of superb dribbles and through-balls to remind Chelsea of his class.
Still, Barca went into the break trailing despite having 70 per cent possession in the first half and proceeded to lay siege on the Chelsea goal in the driving rain.
Messi, looking to add to his record haul of 14 goals this campaign, was dropping deep to start Barca’s attacks. From one of them, Fabregas dinked a ball over the top for Sanchez, who could only sidefoot wide from close range.
Cahill had his best game since joining the club in January, denying Messi with a number of last-ditch tackles in the second half that were reminiscent of Terry in his prime and appearing to block any shot aimed by Barca.
The longer the game went on, the less likely the visitors looked like scoring, although substitute Pedro curled a low shot against the post in the dying seconds.