BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Most of the soccer-loving world will agree this wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to Barcelona, one of the best teams of all time. Not to Lionel Messi, one of the best soccer players of all time.
The celebrated Spanish club and its Argentine star – already mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona – couldn’t work their magic against Chelsea, spawning waves of revelry among fans of the English club and questions about whether the demise of Barcelona had begun.
“Funeral at the Camp Nou,” blared the headline in the Barcelona daily, La Vanguardia, describing the atmosphere at the team’s home field, Europe’s largest stadium with 99,000 seats.
Instead of playing for a third Champions League title in four years, Barcelona is finished while Chelsea lives on, trying to win its first.
Its elimination not only shocked Europe, but deprives soccer fans all over the world of watching a team that comes about as close to perfection as the NBA’s Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
And Messi, of course, had been leading the way.
He won FIFA’s player of the year award the last three years, and scored 63 goals this season – Europe’s highest total in 39 years. But when he stood at the penalty spot with a chance to put Barcelona ahead in the second half of Tuesday’s match against Chelsea, he missed.
His shot – usually so precise, so deft – smacked off the crossbar. Not long afterward, the world’s most popular player walked off the field with tears streaming down his face.
“We’re here because of this kid,” Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola said, referring to Messi and the five goals he scored last month in the Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen. “I have no doubt he’s going through a bad moment. That’s the sad thing about this sport is that these things exist.”
While Barcelona’s best attributes of possession, quick-touch passing and overall shots were on show, the club failed to score enough goals in Tuesday’s 2-2 tie. At this stage of the tournament, goals in both matches are added together, giving Chelsea a 3-2 overall win after last week’s 1-0 victory in London.
“We needed the perfect game but we weren’t perfect because we lacked goals,” Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas said.
The problems started last week. Heading into the first match, Barcelona was heavily favored against a Chelsea team that has been struggling in the English Premier League.
But the hosts played a defensive game and, in some cases, got lucky enough to keep the Barcelona attack from scoring. At the same time, a quick counterattack after Frank Lampard stripped Messi of the ball led to a 1-0 victory.
On Saturday, Barcelona’s season got even worse. Playing archrival Real Madrid at home in the Spanish league, Barcelona needed a victory to keep the title race tight. It lost 2-1 and trailed Madrid by seven points with four games to go.
The final humiliation came Tuesday.
After taking a 2-0 lead against a Chelsea team playing with 10 men following a red card to captain John Terry, everything looked to be back to normal. Barcelona was playing its usual slick passing game, making runs toward goal and putting the Chelsea defense under nearly constant pressure.
It was all working. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
“I don’t even know what I feel right now. I try to figure out what to say when looking at the team, about what we did wrong to not reach the final and I can’t think of anything,” Guardiola said.
“From opening day I’ve transmitted this crazy theme of `You have to go out and attack, attack, attack,’ and there are moments when we don’t know when to pause. Maybe it’s a lesson to learn for the future. We have to find the way to attack better.”
From the Chelsea side, the overall victory had little to do with Barcelona’s lack of scoring. For the Blues, it was all about what they did to win.
“We came here and we scored goals, and in the first leg we scored as well,” said Chelsea forward Didier Drogba, the Ivory Coast star, who scored the lone goal in the first match. “Without being arrogant, we deserved to win.”
It would be hard to argue otherwise. Throughout the second half, which included Messi’s third missed penalty this season in the 49th minute, Barcelona controlled the ball and waited for the breakthrough moment. Because of Chelsea’s defense, it never came.
Instead of defense-splitting passes, the Barcelona players kicked the ball from side to side. When they did get close to goal, several men in white shirts were there to stop the challenge.
And on and on it went until Fernando Torres – heavily criticized all season for his lack of goals – scored in the final seconds. A goal that meant Barcelona needed to score two to advance.
Two goals in a matter of seconds.
Not a chance, not even for Barcelona.
Copyright Associated Press