Barca v Chelsea: A terrible beauty

Their display in Barcelona showed Jose Mourinho's Chelsea side at their worst - and at their very best
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The Independent Football

When Didier Drogba scored his 93rd-minute equaliser on Tuesday, it upset someone in the Nou Camp so much they pulled a peach out of their packed lunch and lobbed it at the celebrating Chelsea striker. It did nothing to faze Drogba, he just picked it up and ate it.

Therein lies the problem of any team facing Chelsea at the moment - you give them your best shot and they just seem to come back with an even better one. If Barcelona's fans had thrown the traditional pig's head at Chelsea, Frank Lampard would have trapped it and passed it back. Had they slung the kitchen sink, Michael Essien would have brushed his teeth in it. In the game that had it all, Chelsea had the most and Barcelona ran out of ammunition.

How do the football purists learn to love "New Chelsea"? It is the question that has been posed ever since Roman Abramovich's billions gave birth to this mewling, precocious infant three years ago that has grown so prodigiously even some of the club's supporters have struggled to rationalise its development. They said that his money would never buy a team spirit - that was disproved over the course of 96 absorbing minutes in Barcelona.

What did John Terry say in the huddle of white shirts against the background of the Nou Camp's scorn after the match on Tuesday night? He refused to divulge exactly what, but the understanding is that he told his team-mates that this performance should set the tone for the rest of their Champions' League campaign: that this comeback told them they could win the competition this time.

You had to agree there was plenty to admire and lots that you would rather not have seen. Like how a player with Drogba's courage and determination cannot grasp the basic concept that it is more noble to stay on his feet than petition the referee for every flailing arm that comes his way. Or why Claude Makelele, finding himself in the opposition's penalty area for the first time in about 10 months, reacted to this undiscovered country by flinging himself over at the first opportunity.

It is the great paradox at the heart of Chelsea. At last England has a team as streetwise as any mob of shirt-tuggers or referee-intimidators that Italy or Spain ever produced and, having shrugged off the naïvety that has bedevilled the Premiership's under-achieving teams in the Champions' League, suddenly, on nights like these we are confronted with just what that loss of innocence means.

Chelsea were not the only ones. As Essien rampaged down the right to start the move which would end in Drogba's equaliser, Deco decided the situation had become so desperate he threw himself at the midfielder in a tackle that looked like it might split the Ghanaian in two. Essien's speed and athleticism saw him survive, but only very narrowly, and, had the Portuguese midfielder connected, it would certainly have been the night's first red card.

When Terry complained about the "world-class players trying to get others booked" among Barcelona's team, it was difficult not to feel sympathy for the Chelsea captain. He is the man who rushes in to stand over his fallen team-mates. The trouble is that there are far too many among his own number doing the same thing. No more than Drogba, who could finish the season as Player of the Year and still be booed wherever he goes.

There are times when you expect the virtuoso elements of Barcelona's great attacking ensemble simply to sweep aside Chelsea but they may one day curse the fact that history has paired them with this particular team. The Premiership champions proved on Tuesday that they have all the qualities to reduce Barcelona, the most free-flowing attacking side of this generation, to neurosis. Or, at the very least, a side plagued by the fear, as at the climax of every horror film, they have not quite finished off the bad guys.

And the chief villain of all, as far as Barcelona are concerned, is the man in charge. What is it about Jose Mourinho and Barcelona that they bring out the worst in each other? When he sat down alongside the interpreter for his pre-match press conference, the joke, in Catalan, was: which one is doing the interpreting? This was a reference to Mourinho's humble past at the Spanish club. When he made his final exit on Tuesday night it was to the whistles of the Spanish media, from whom he had refused to take a single question.

"The worst thing about playing against Chelsea is to have to listen to the stupidity of Mourinho," Barcelona's Brazilian midfielder Edmilson said. "He is a little man who, in his own head, has suddenly become the owner of the world. In life it is necessary to be humble and he shows no humility at all. And when you lose against him, it is even worse, because you have to hear it all over again. He should spend more time concentrating on his work and just shut his mouth. He is someone I do not like to talk about."

They do not like to talk about him in Barcelona, but it seems that they find it impossible to do much else. Mourinho was at his sneering best on Tuesday, a cartoon villain in everything but the curly moustache. His back-room staff are even more disputatious than him, the glowering assistant Baltemar Brito, his chippy fitness coach Rui Faria and even Steve Clarke who, it seems, has of late adopted a bit of an attitude to fit in with the Portuguese boys.

They are doing their best to be unlovable but Chelsea continue to amaze us. In glimpses they show us what we believe is the best of English football - unbreakable spirit, boundless belief. It is just the way that they are packaged up that is so hard to take. The niggling fouls, the imprecations to the referee: for 20 years these were the aspects that separated the English from the rest of Europe and the barrier to sustained success. Now Mourinho and Chelsea have embraced modern football, English football seems unready to embrace them.