They summoned a performance from the gods to beat Barcelona and, in doing so, Chelsea also had to beat a player whose football seems at times to exist in another dimension.
They summoned a performance from the gods to beat Barcelona and, in doing so, Chelsea also had to beat a player whose football seems at times to exist in another dimension. Ronaldinho contributed some sublime moments to this contest but the news that even the greatest player in the world does not possess enough talent to shake the destiny of Jose Mourinho's side might yet be all the evidence Chelsea need that they can win this Champions' League.
It was a towering epic of a match, a game that shifted from elation to despair and then back again for Chelsea as rapidly as these two teams committed themselves to the plundering of one another's penalty areas. Ronaldinho's second goal will long be remembered, but in the end even his peerless command of a football was eclipsed by the usual Chelsea suspects. Frank Lampard, Petr Cech and, above all, John Terry, whose header on 76 minutes decided this captivating tie.
As usual where Mourinho is concerned they ended with the exchange of insults and punches in the tunnel, although the Portuguese coach could at least be excused involvement. He was on the pitch celebrating when his scout Andre Villas Boas provoked a riot with Frank Rijkaard, and the incensed Barcelona players were bundled down the tunnel like a misbehaving rock band being escorted offstage. But that was a footnote to a game of staggering scope and quality.
It began with 11 minutes from Chelsea in which they did not so much tweak open Barcelona's defence as smash it off its hinges. Three goals and a rampaging show of brash confidence from a team that was switched from 4-5-1 to 4-4-2. Still without Arjen Robben, and with Didier Drogba suspended, Mourinho opted to replace one striker with two. And Mateja Kezman and Eidur Gudjohnsen expressed his new attacking philosophy in breathtaking terms.
The Barcelona defence was already looking suspiciously square when Lampard gobbled up possession from Xavi on eight minutes and speared a ball down the right for Kezman to chase. The striker beat Giovanni van Bronckhorst and squared for Gudjohnsen. He stepped round Juliano Belletti and scored.
Lampard had already volleyed a header from Terry wide when he added the second on 17 minutes. Joe Cole glided down the right and cut in past Van Bronckhorst and, when his deflected shot was pushed out by Victor Valdes, Lampard was there to tuck the ball home.
Two minutes later the Barcelona defence allowed Cole to poke a pass through the line to Damien Duff, who ran free and zipped the ball under Valdes. From there it looked like the mauling had left Barcelona irredeemably wounded but it was impossible to ignore the threat of Ronaldinho.
He headed wide on 23 minutes, Samuel Eto'o had a shot brushed over by Cech and then, on 26 minutes, Paulo Ferreira misjudged a Belletti cross that struck his hand. The referee Pierluigi Collina gave the penalty and, although Cech got close, Ronaldinho's shot found its target. And with a wrenching certainty, the game's traffic was turned in the other direction.
Ronaldinho's second goal on 28 minutes started on the edge of the area and, by the time he had the ball under control, the Brazilian was static with Ricardo Carvalho just feet from him. For a couple of heartbeats, Ronaldinho's foot flexed and twitched behind the ball. Then, in an instant, he dispatched past Cech what can only be described, in English schoolyard parlance, as a toe punt. But what a toe punt.
The shot did not just take Chelsea's goalkeeper by surprise, it wrong-footed an entire stadium. No backlift and no warning, and Cech never even moved. With the score 4-4 on aggregate, and Barcelona leading on away goals, all the momentum from Chelsea's blistering start had been exhausted. On 45 minutes Cole struck the post and Gudjohnsen was unable to finish the rebound.
It was in danger of becoming one man's exhibition and, almost in recognition of that fact, Ferreira secured a small memento when he took the bizarre decision to change shirts with Ronaldinho as the teams left the pitch at half-time. The Portuguese right-back was substituted soon after but there was no hiding the fact that Chelsea were some distance from recreating their early dominance.
They probed away at Barcelona and the scavenging of possession by Lampard kept them moving forward. Then, on 76 minutes, they went back to what they know best. Terry rose to head Cole's corner down past Valdes and the captain's eighth goal of the season stood despite Barcelona's protests. Mourinho left the pitch blowing kisses to the away fans, who returned by showering him with bottles. It was a gladiatorial exit after an evening of living dangerously.
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech; Ferreira (Johnson, 50), Carvalho, Terry, Gallas; Cole, Makelele, Lampard, Duff (Huth, 85); Gudjohnsen (Tiago, 78), Kezman. Substitutes not used: Cudicini (gk), Smertin, Parker.
Barcelona (4-1-2-3): Valdes; Belletti (Giuly, 83), Puyol, Oleguer, Van Bronckhorst (Silvinho, h-t); Gerard; Deco, Xavi; Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Iniesta (Lopez, 85). Substitutes not used: Jorquera, Navarro, Albertini, Damia.
Referee: P Collina (Italy).