Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Speaking of Sports

I don't normally cover sporting events per se, but I have to report on the UEFA semi-final match last evening between Chelsea of the Barclay's Premier League and FC Barcelona of La Liga Espana.
It was perhaps the grittiest, gutsiest performance I've ever seen in any sport, any time, anywhere (except when I was forced into basketball games against the local tough guys, taking on a couple of eight year olds as teammates.)
Chelsea entered the match needing only to lose by one goal or less, so long as they scored one goal.
The rules are complex here, but let me set the scene: Chelsea won at home, 1-0. They would play a second game at Barcelona's home field. If Barcelona won 1-0 as well, it would mean the aggregate score was tied and there'd be extra time and if needed, a penalty shoot-out.
If Chelsea scored a goal, however, that would give them an advantage: the first tie breaker is not extra time, but if a visiting team scored. If both visitors score, then it's extra time.
Barcelona were leading 1-0 late in the first half when Chelsea captain John Terry maliciously kneed Alexis Sanchez in the back, receiving a red card and automatic dismissal and suspension for the final game. There really was no good reason, and Terry has a history of rather erratic behavior anyway.
When a player receives a red card, it not only penalizes him, but forces his team to play without substituting for him (e.g. with a full eleven and a red card, the team must now make do with only ten players.) Chelsea looked doomed when immediately after Terry's ejection, Barcelona scored a ridiculously easy goal, courtesy of Andres Iniesta off a pass from the greatest player in the world (who sure didn't show it last night,) Lionel Messi.
That put Barcelona up 2-0, and 2-1 on aggregate. No second chances for Chelsea. And yet...
Somehow, a man down against one of the four greatest teams in Europe, Chelsea managed not only to hold off any further scoring, but off a beautiful lead pass from Frank Lampard, Ramires chipped a gorgeous soft volley over the head of Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes and into the back of the net. 2-1, Barcelona. 2-2, aggregate, plus Chelsea now have the advantage of a visitor's goal. Call it 2-2+, Chelsea.
That was the end of the first half.
The second half is where Chelsea bared its teeth and with a lot of luck and some fine tending by Chelsea netminder Petr Cech, Chelsea held off an onslaught from arguably the greatest offensive team ever fielded on a pitch. The luck came in the form of a penalty kick by Messi that clanged off the crossbar like a hammer off a sheet of metal.
Chelsea spent nearly the entire half defending their end of the pitch (possession statistics showed something like 78% to Barcelona in the second half), occasionally driving a long ball downfield. After 90 minutes, the score remained 2-1 when Fernando Torres, the maligned striker that sits on Chelsea's bench most games, despite an $80 million contract, managed to get under a desperate clearance from defender Ashely Cole-- the ball may have travelled 50 metres in the air-- flick it forward and juke the Barcelona keeper out of his net and out of his jock.
End of story. Go watch a tape of the game. It's worth every moment.