Understudy Gary Cahill takes centre stage to give stellar performance for Chelsea against Barcelona

Despite early nerves, David Luiz's defensive replacement shows he can cope at the top level

Stamford Bridge

Carles Puyol knew what he was in for at Stamford Bridge: an evening of unarmed combat with Didier Drogba involving much wrestling and plenty of heading practice. The challenge for Gary Cahill was more cerebral. This was the night, after a season of waiting, waiting for a move from Bolton, waiting for a game, he had been waiting all his career for.

When David Luiz went down with the sniper's bullet collapse of a hamstring pull at Wembley on Sunday night, Cahill knew destiny was hammering on his door. A walk-on part in an FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham was just the preamble, this was the main event.

Barcelona present a unique challenge to central defenders for they do not field a centre-forward. With David Villa injured, the one genuine fit striker, Alexei Sanchez, plays on the wing. Pep Guardiola deploys Messi and Cesc Fabregas central, but deep. So Cahill and John Terry found themselves marking space, seeking to hold their shape and waiting, waiting for Messi or Fabregas to move forward, or Andres Iniesta or Sanchez to cut in from the flanks. It was a very different experience to going head-to-head with Emmanuel Adebayor as Cahill did on Sunday.

It was, though, the type of occasion Cahill came to Stamford Bridge to play in. At 26 he had become the mainstay of Bolton Wanderers' defence but it was time to further his football education. Prior to joining Chelsea his continental experience was limited to four matches in the Trotters' Europa League run four years ago. His Champions League debut was the debacle at Napoli in February that left Andre Villas-Boas a lame duck manager. Omitted from Chelsea's subsequent three Champions League matches Cahill has since managed just 41 minutes off the bench when Terry was injured.

This was part of a dispiriting pattern for Cahill whose time at Chelsea has rarely gone to plan. The transfer was delayed a fortnight by a wrangle over terms, then he had to wait until February to get a game. It was against Manchester United and Chelsea conceded three goals. Cahill was then part of a defence whose vulnerability against Napoli and West Bromwich Albion led to the firing of the man who signed him. Roberto Di Matteo stepped up and Cahill was back on the bench.

Perhaps distracted by the collapse of his proposed transfer to Tottenham, Cahill had a poor first half of the season at Bolton. He has, though, performed well alongside Terry for England, so much so they look the most likely pairing going into the European Championship. A good performance last night would go a long way to cementing that position – assuming the next England manager, whoever it is, was watching.

With Barcelona playing keep-ball for the opening minutes it was a while before Cahill got a touch. When he did he exchanged short passes with John Obi Mikel then, pressed, fed the ball back to Petr Cech. It was not what a ball-playing centre-back is supposed to do but he was not alone among his team in finding it difficult to pick a pass.

Soon that was the least of his worries. Midway through the half Iniesta appeared to have skipped past Cahill only to be muscled over in the box. There was enough force in the challenge for the Chelsea man to have been relieved when the German referee waved away Barça's penalty appeals. A minute later Fabregas turned him too easily and Cahill was grateful that Cech beat the shot away. He was soon indebted again to Cech, then Cole, as he found himself poorly placed to prevent Messi, then Fabregas, going close. It seemed the step up in class was too great.

Elite performers have the gift of putting mistakes behind them to focus on the here and now. Cahill showed that quality after the interval. Twice within 10 minutes of the re-start he made telling interventions, blocking a Messi shot, then making a superbly timed tackle on Sanchez as the Chilean looked set to go clear. Then came the moment which suggested he could, after all, live with this company. Messi, determined to atone for the error which led to Chelsea's goal, ran at the heart of the defence. So often this ends with a delicate chip over the goalkeeper and a goal. He went past one defender, then two, but Cahill read the twist inside and neatly dispossessed him. It was a moment for posterity, to tell the kids about, and for Di Matteo to consider when he picks the team for a repeat performance in Catalonia.

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