James Lawton: Special One's gift of motivation sees off Messi threat

Chelsea found some of their old power and their belief
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The Independent Football

Out of the most acrid and destructive of controversies - and the ironic derision heaped upon the beautifully gifted Lionel Messi - something genuinely stirring happened here last night. Chelsea beat the champions of Europe with a show of power and ultimate self-confidence after once again staring at the possibility of humiliation.

For a while Barcelona promised another example of the football that makes dreams. But Chelsea made a different kind of reality, and in the end it had an inspiring quality all of its own. Didier Drogba's winner was an astonishing eruption of sweet power and skill - and it triggered a conviction that tore through Barça's lattice-work of often delicate skill.

It also carried us beyond the booing of Messi, which was both relentless and timely; it reminded us that subjectivity at most football grounds is not so much a vice as an unshakeable habit, a reality which, of course, was not exactly dissipated by the glowering presence of the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho's outrageously cavalier approach to facts had been scaling new heights of invention in recent days as it played across the misadventure of the Reading player Stephen Hunt's seriously damaging, and plainly clumsy, challenge on Chelsea's brilliant goalkeeper Petr Cech - and maybe for those with a memory span that stretched back further than the latest controversy hand-picked by the Special One, the crowd reaction to the marvellously gifted teenaged Argentine winger had a sobering effect.

Mourinho, so emphatic that Hunt had intended to damage his player, had claimed that Messi had dived outrageously here last season when the former Chelsea full-back Asier del Horno had charged across the field with such little ambition, and still less hope, of making contact with the ball.

Del Horno was sent off as a matter of course; it was a tackle of sickening, desperate cynicism as Messi weaved some extraordinary passages of virtuosity. But of course such facts rarely intrude on entrenched prejudice, especially when it is fanned with the diligence Mourinho applied on that occasion when Chelsea were pushed to the edge of European oblivion by a plainly superior brand of football.

Last night that class division appeared to be opening up again before Drogba's superb intervention - and once again the pace and invention of Messi threatened to be the main catalyst. One move that involved him at its heart also contained the wit and sharpness of Ronaldinho and Deco before the excellent craftsman Xavi drew an impressive save from Hilario, the hitherto apprehensive replacement for the fallen Cech and Carlo Cudicini.

It seemed like the clearest portent of fresh pressure on Mourinho as he sought to dispel the notion that the team he had built to dominate the Premiership might again be found wanting at the upper levels of European competition.

But then no one ever said that the Chelsea manager was in any danger of exhausting his powers of motivation. There may have been a degree of ambivalence about the signings of Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko, and more than one suggestion that Mourinho was having a star system imposed on him against his will, but when the pressure rose last night he was still able to impose his will.

Progressively, Barcelona had taken a grip on the game. Though Ronaldinho was plainly some way from the freedom and mastery that carried Barça to the European Cup in Paris in May, and so mysteriously disappeared under the weight of Brazilian expectations at the World Cup, the rhythm of his team's passing and running, with much of it shaped by Deco and Xavi, had strongly suggested a formal takeover in the second half.

That it didn't happen was not altogether to do with Drogba's stupendous driven goal after a fine run by Michael Essien just a minute after the interval. It was also a tribute to Mourinho's ability to raise up a team which, after the psychological punishment of last season's ejection from the European Cup by a team which appeared to be moving on to another level, might have been expected to buckle again - especially against the background of recent Premiership performance.

Barcelona were plainly intent on delivering another blow to the psychology of Roman Abramovich's organisation. They believed they had the resources and the talent, but Chelsea, despite their worries on the goal-line, found something of great value themselves.

It was a revival of belief - a sense that maybe some have been a touch quick to draw down the curtains on the highest levels of their ambition. Unquestionably, Chelsea found some of their old power - and they did it against a team widely acclaimed as maybe the the most gifted and sophisticated in the world game. It had been a needlessly hard and bitter few days, but this was something more uplifting. In the end it was the best of a team who so often appear to have been besieged by no one more than themselves, and not least by their manager.

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