Barcelona won't lose any sleep over Chelsea semi-final

Chelsea have gone backwards since losing in 2009 to Catalans, who are now even stronger

Stamford Bridge

Chelsea have their chance for revenge on Barcelona. Three years ago they met in the semi-final, and they felt aggrieved to go out. But while Chelsea's progress to the last four was comfortable, until the last six minutes last night, it will not deprive the Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola of too much sleep. Much, much more will be needed in the semis.

With Chelsea taking a 1-0 lead into this game, scoring another goal after 21 minutes and gaining a one-man advantage soon after, there was, until a nervous final six minutes, not too much doubt that they, rather than Benfica, would be hosting the European champions on 18 April and visiting the Nou Camp six days later.

That is not to downplay the achievement. In reaching the Champions League's final four, Chelsea have gone two stages further than any other English team. They have also done it in a difficult season: in fifth place, they are facing their worst Premier League finish under Roman Abramovich.

But that is precisely the problem. This, by any reasonable standard, is the worst Chelsea team in years. While they are clearly less strong, less fit, less sharp and less competitive than they were in April 2009, Barcelona have moved in the opposite direction. And the difficulties Chelsea will have against the Catalans were certainly presaged last night. Against a good Benfica side, but not one from the top category of European teams, they were made to look decidedly backward.

For the 40 minutes in which both teams had 11 men there was only one side playing good football, only one side passing and moving with the imagination and ability which is a necessity at the serious end of Europe's elite competition.

Roberto Di Matteo lined up Jon Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard in front of the back four. His 4-2-3-1 system has worked well at Chelsea so far, producing results that Ramires said had allowed them to rediscover "respect".

But no one would suggest it is as good as their midfield was when Barcelona last came here, back when Chelsea had Michael Ballack, as well as a younger and fitter Michael Essien and Lampard. Last night Benfica just passed round them. Pablo Aimar, the best player on the pitch, dropped behind Oscar Cardozo to create angles and patterns that Chelsea had not even considered.

In the heart of Benfica's midfield, Nemanja Matic, one of the many talented youngsters Chelsea have enthusiastically recruited before going cold on, was a reliable anchor while Axel Witsel strutted briskly around the centre of the park. Either side of Witsel, Nicolas Gaitan and Bruno Cesar shuttled from midfield tidyness to stretching wing-play.

And Chelsea, at times, barely got a touch. Lampard has the intelligence but not the intensity to do that two-man screening job, and Mikel was frequently left with two or three red shirts darting past him and no obvious answer.

Just three minutes in Lampard had to block a Witsel shot on the edge of the box, and soon after it was Terry's turn to stop Aimar in the same fashion. Aimar and Cardozo both found that they had the time and space to drop deep, show for the ball, turn and shoot.

Now imagine if that was Barcelona. No team in the past 20 years has moved the ball or exploited space better than the current European champions. On Tuesday Barcelona, playing 3-3-4, had Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in central midfield, with Cesc Fabregas and Lionel Messi drifting in and out of the spaces where conventional teams would have a centre-forward or two. Against this Chelsea midfield it would almost seem like a game between teams from different evolutionary eras.

Of course, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Chelsea could hope to squeeze out a lead in their first leg here, before digging in at the Nou Camp. That is exactly what Jose Mourinho's Internazionale did two years ago, the last time Barcelona lost a semi-final.

But that was one of the great defensive performances of the modern era, and it was not obvious last night that Chelsea could replicate it. Knockout football is not a perfect merit test. Inferior teams, with the help of lucky bounces or decisions, can progress. But if Chelsea thought they were hard done by three years ago, they will need to be repaid in abundance to do better in 2012.

voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Caption competition
Caption competition

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn