Earlier this evening I watched an internet replay of the second leg of the Champions League semifinal between Chelsea (of the English Premier League) and Barcelona (of the Spanish ‘La Liga’). Knockout rounds prior to the final in the Champions League are conducted in a home-and-home format where the team that scores the most goals overall is the victor – ties are solved by away goals: whoever scores more when they are away from home wins.
The first leg was a dry affair in Barcelona: Chelsea had been content to sit back on defense for the full 90 minutes, letting Barcelona muster up whatever chances they could, content to ride their goaltender (Petr Cech), his defensemen, and the midfielders who rarely dared advance beyond the field’s mid-line. Barcelona possessed the ball for most of the match but were unable to penetrate Chelsea’s guardians of the goal.
The contrast between the two sides is quite striking and indicative of the reasons why soccer is unpopular in the United States. Chelsea’s strategy is emblematic of the slow, low-scoring, dull contests that Americans identify when discussing their dislike for soccer. Barcelona seeks to score, and to score often, in beautiful ways preferring to gamble on their ability to out-score any opponent. Barca are willing to give up chances comfortable with their ability to create more at the other end.
The second leg opened with Chelsea driving the ball forward a bit, a welcome change to their previous tactic. I had chosen to cheer for Barca in the contest, given their exciting style (as well as Chelsea’s quarterfinal defeat of Liverpool – a friend’s favorite team). In the ninth minute, a Chelsea shot attempt took a bounce off a Barca defender, hung in the air, then came to Michael Essien who struck it less than a foot off the ground, and hit it absolutely wonderfully. The ball bounced off the bottom of the crossbar into the net – Goalkeeper Victor Valdez had no chance on the play, done in by bad luck and a perfect strike from Essien’s gifted foot.
The remainder of the match was oddly reminiscent of the first match and it seemed that Chelsea would be content with their inevitable one-nil victory and a ticket to Rome for the final on the 27th. Barcelona mustered attack after attack and shot after shot but stout Chelsea defense, poor shooting and impatient passing, and unfortunate bounces turned each opportunity into a goal kick or a Chelsea counter. At some point early in the second half (I missed about 18 minutes) one of Barca’s players was sent off with a red card. Chelsea took advantage of being up a man by pressing forward with strength and had some excellent opportunities, which were denied by excellent goaltending as well as some interesting decisions by the referee. Two possible handballs in the box (an automatic penalty kick) were ignored – one was questionable and probably not a handball while the other was quite clear and somewhat mystifying – and Chelsea could not find a second goal to secure their victory. Their fans were unbelievably tense – all standing silently biting away at their nails; they lacked confidence in the ability of the defense to hold Barca scoreless for a second time.
I was disappointed by the draw resulting from the first leg, feeling that Barca had clearly outplayed Chelsea and believing that Barca were very unfortunate to fail to take advantage of their opportunities. During the second leg, Valdez clearly outplayed Cech. In addition to making several very nice saves, Cech seemed to be out of position and a bit clumsy when moving to the ball and taking goal kicks.
One could have described Barca’s effort to even the game as courageous, but such a description is a bit unseemly: with their tournament lives on the line they defied Chelsea to score another goal and brought nine men to accomplish the task at hand, knowing that the odds of overcoming the deficit with a lesser measure were unfavorable and believing a 2-0 loss no worse than that of a 1-0. The gamble created much intensity and great entertainment.
The referees announced four minutes of second half stoppage time and Barca stepped up their intensity, racing forward trying furiously to make up for the lack of time and men with enough opportunities to tie the score. Due to the location of the match – Chelsea’s home park – and the earlier scoreless draw Barca needed only one away goal to win overall. But a loss seemed inevitable as free kicks went wide and passes strayed behind their intended targets. Finally, when Chelsea victory had just seemed to pass beyond doubt, Andres Iniesta plunged a beautiful shot to the right of Cech that swung into the netting and evened the evening’s scoreline. After over 180 minutes, Barca had struck, and not a moment to soon.
Chelsea tried furiously to retake the lead, bringing their keeper forward on multiple corner kicks but were unable to force Barca’s Valdez to make a save. Michael Ballack was awarded a yellow card for disputing the referee’s indecision on a questionable no-call on an in the box handball – I thought it clearly should not have been called, as it was not – and after a few minutes of flurry – the final whistle blew and Barca advanced to face Manchester United.
The game’s two goals represented two very different methodologies of creating opportunities – one was a bludgeon set up by a lucky bounce while the other was a carefully orchestrated set of passes ending with the ball spinning beyond the diving keeper. Both were excellent goals but one was more praiseworthy, more beautiful, and in the end more valuable.
Looking back on the experience of watching this game, it seems to me that, in many ways, sports have gone very far in replacing cinema in our desire for dramatic endings. Great film has given way to endless sequels and prequels that don’t give us any sense of finality. Meanwhile, through TiVo, espn360 replays, and other similar measures, an exciting game can be viewed as though live at any time, much like a DVD, and the experience of the duel of forces can be lived through as though it were occurring in the present. The climactic moment is now transportable and can be made imminent whenever one has the necessary hardware at hand. We have gained a certain immediacy in our entertainment but we have also lost a sense of community surrounding moments of drama. Our ability to experience drama as a society decreases as we become more individual in our enjoyment of it and in our separated presences in these climactic moments. It is an odd trade-off but at this point I believe that I prefer the superior access to the sentiment of commonality, however, as my point of view evolves with the changing technology I may come to different conclusions.
(I hope to include some youtube videos of the goals and the finer plays in the match; I’ll look to do so as they are posted. If you have access to espn360, you will be able to watch the match in its entirety.)