Jose Mourinho left the Nou Camp pitch blowing kisses, but if he was saying farewell to anything then it was his reputation as a manager who can always transform the most unpromising situations into glorious victory. In the final stages of this Champions' League exit his strike force was led by Robert Huth and Barcelona's by Ronaldinho: this was not the work of the "Special One", this was a bad flashback to the days of Claudio Ranieri.
The night was crowned by a sublime goal from Ronaldinho, which rendered Frank Lampard's late penalty strike irrelevant, but in reality it had been ended as a contest long before then. Gradually enfeebled despite their commitment to a new attacking 4-4-2 formation from the very start, Chelsea never looked like the marauding force destined to plunder two goals and turn the tie around - but that was a reality their manager simply refused to accept.
The song that rolled down from the steep sides of the Nou Camp as the Chelsea manager made his retreat to the tunnel was "Mourinho - say hello to the champions". It was a concession that he was unprepared to make. Asked whether he thought that Barcelona had proved themselves the better of the two teams over both legs Mourinho's answer was: "I don't think so."
He added: "We have played against them four times in two seasons and when it was 11 men against 11 they never beat us - that is the reality. We had a very difficult job to do because we were losing 2-1. Knock-out competitions are about two ties and in the first we lost in strange circumstances. If we had had a little bit of luck, if we had scored before the last minute we would have had a big chance but we only scored in the last minute."
That, the Nou Camp might say, is Mourinho's reality although not theirs. Reality bit deep and hard in the 78th minute when Ronaldinho collected possession, shimmied once, bounced off John Terry and angled a low drive beyond Petr Cech. Somewhere in this great stadium a Russian billionaire must have wondered why that kind of brilliance was beyond any of his lavish signings.
An empire defeated, the richest club in football stopped in their tracks by 10 seconds of brilliance from the man whom Roman Abramovich's wealth and Mourinho's cunning could not halt. The rancorous, unhappy collisions of Chelsea and Barcelona over the last 12 months have not always been easy to define but a sublime goal from Ronaldinho last night meant that at least they had their moment of beauty.
A flash of greatness for Barcelona but this time we saw plenty of the steel in Frank Rijkaard's team. They lost Lionel Messi after 23 minutes and barely broke stride in a first-half performance in which they forced their visitors further into their own half. Mourinho may have picked a team that was built to attack, but Chelsea spent so much of this match defending.
Ronaldinho's goal aside, this match never soared to the heights, although it certainly showed up the crucial deficiencies of Mourinho's team. Swapping 4-5-1 for 4-4-2 was a serious departure from the principles that have served him well over the last 18 months at Stamford Bridge, yet his players seemed incapable of exploiting a formation that gave them so much leave to attack. He selected Joe Cole and Damien Duff on the wings, with Arjen Robben in an unfamiliar new role supporting Didier Drogba in attack.
The Chelsea manager had long considered leaving out Eidur Gudjohnsen and his first plan was to play Drogba and Hernan Crespo alongside each other, but early yesterday he discarded that idea in favour of the Robben plan. However, Chelsea created just one meaningful chance when the game was goalless and that was after Mourinho had made two substitutions.
"At this level of football, details can make a big difference," Mourinho said. "I said the same when I won the Champions' League with Porto - we scored a goal in the last minute [against Manchester United] to go through. Against Liverpool last season we missed an open goal in the last minute, this season we played for an hour against Barcelona with 10 men."
In the first half there was little in the way of chances, although Ronaldinho tortured Paulo Ferreira by inflicting the whole showcase of humiliations on the full-back. There were at least four back-heeled passes, the most choice a ball that opened the way for Messi to shoot on 18 minutes, although a shot from Thiago Motta that was saved by Cech was the best they offered on goal in the first half.
A Chelsea breakthrough seemed even more unlikely, a weak header from Drogba was all the striker managed and when he, and Duff, departed before the hour for Gudjohnsen and Crespo it felt like a seminal moment for the £24m man.
Crespo's chance on 63 minutes was their best before the goal. First Terry's tackle, then Claude Makelele's, worked the ball out right to Cole who doubled back on Giovanni van Bronckhorst and aimed a cross at the near post. The Argentine just directed the ball wide. It proved costly. Ronaldinho broke free of his markers in the 78th minute and his low drive awoke the Nou Camp into rapture.
Samuel Eto'o struck a low ball off the post with five minutes left and by then Huth was on the pitch, a desperate measure in desperate times. In injury time, Terry won a dubious penalty when he was tackled by Van Bronckhorst and Lampard held his nerve to beat Valdes. By then, Mourinho was already contemplating another long, cold exile from the Champions' League - for this season at least.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdes; Oleguer, Puyol, Marquez, Van Bronckhorst; Motta, Edmilson, Deco; Messi (Larsson, 23), Eto'o, Ronaldinho. Substitutes not used: Jorquera (gk), Belletti, Giuly, Sylvinho, Van Bommel, Iniesta.
Chelsea (4-4-2): Cech, Paulo Ferreira, Ricardo Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; J Cole (Huth, 83), Makelele, Lampard, Duff (Gudjohnsen, 58); Robben, Drogba (Crespo, 58). Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Maniche, Geremi, Wright-Phillips.
Referee: M Merk (Germany).