Meireles' late strike seals gala evening with Barcelona


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The Independent Online

It is time for Chelsea to saddle up and face the old enemy, Barcelona, once more. This will be the Chelsea's sixth Champions League semi-final in nine years, yet last night they wasted chances and stumbled badly against the 10 men of Benfica. Only when Raul Meireles broke deep into injury time and smashed in the winner did the tension finally lift.

Chelsea led through Frank Lampard's penalty and with Maxi Pereira dismissed before half-time the way was clear. As is their way of late, they failed to score a second and Javi Garcia's late goal meant there was a painful final few minutes.

Chelsea have defended poorly at times this season and never more so than, with John Terry off injured, in the way a goal was gifted to Garcia. They remain England's sole representatives in the competition, but they know that should they fail to beat Barcelona it might be a long wait indeed to avenge the semi-final of 2009. If this season culminates in the worst-case scenario it will be a while until the Champions League anthem plays at Stamford Bridge.

By half-time, Benfica were down to 10 men. It was little consolation that Pablo Aimar was arguably the best player on the pitch. The Slovenian referee, Damir Skomina, dished out eight yellow cards, six to Benfica including two for Maxi Pereira, off four minutes before the break.

Benfica had looked dangerous. Then Ashley Cole was released into the area, taking the ball past Garcia. The Spaniard could not stop himself colliding with the left-back. In the protests, Skomina booked Garcia, Bruno Cesar and Pereira. Lampard scored.

Benfica had chances. David Luiz gave the ball away on 27 minutes and Nicolas Gaitan almost got a sight of goal. A free-kick was headed down to Oscar Cardozo and Terry cleared off the line. Pereira's red card came for his second bookable offence – a silly tackle on John Obi Mikel.

After the break, the opportunities came. It was a pity that so many fell to Salomon Kalou. He hit the post in the 49th minute and Juan Mata had a couple of shots saved. Fernando Torres turned Emerson but had his strike deflected wide.

Benfica's confidence crept back. and on 84 minutes Garcia was given a free jump at Aimar's corner. Until Meireles' breakaway, the place was so tense. Imagine what it will be like when Lionel Messi comes to visit.