For a long while, Chelsea and the Champions League was a tale of frustration. Boosted by Roman Abramovich’s investment and Jose Mourinho’s brilliant management, the Blues won two Premier League titles at a canter in 2004/05 and 2005/06. They then added another championship crown to their honours list under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, and also scooped an additional five trophies in the form of three FA Cups and two League Cups in the first eight years of the Abramovich era.
Despite their domestic dominance, though, Chelsea repeatedly failed to make the breakthrough in Europe. Under Claudio Ranieri in 2003/04, they were unable to take advantage of a surprisingly open tournament by suffering elimination at the hands of eventual runners-up Monaco in the semi-finals. They were also knocked out at the same stage in Mourinho’s first season thanks to Luis Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ for Liverpool, before exiting in the round of 16 following defeat by Barcelona in 2005/06.
After more semi-final heartache against the Reds the following year, Chelsea reached their first Champions League final in 2008. They came within a penalty kick of lifting the trophy too, but John Terry’s crucial slip took the shootout to extra time and gave Manchester United a second chance which they did not pass up. Some questionable refereeing decisions played their part in the semi-final loss to Barcelona in 2009, before Mourinho beat his former club while in charge of Inter in the round of 16 the subsequentseason. After a two-legged defeat by Manchester United in the quarter-finals of 2010/11, Chelsea fans were beginning to question whether they were cursed on the continental stage.
It was evidence of football’s unpredictability that the Blues finally got their hands on the trophy when it seemed as if they were past their best. Much of 2011/12 was a disappointment, with Andre Villas-Boas sacked in March after failing to get his ideas across to a group of players who were unconvinced by his methods. Roberto Di Matteo was handed the reins on a caretaker basis, and in his second game in charge the Italian somehow masterminded a 4-1 victory over Napoli which gave Chelsea a 5-4 aggregate triumph in the round of 16.
The quarter-final draw was kind to Di Matteo’s men, who dispatched of Benfica with a minimum of fuss, but a last-four meeting with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona – the holders who had made light work of Manchester United in the previous season’s final – was likely to be a step too far. Di Matteo had still only suffered a single defeat by the time the first leg rolled around on April 18, but Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and co. would surely prove too strong for a side who were sixth in the Premier League standings.
As it happened, Chelsea turned in a resilient performance in front of their own fans at Stamford Bridge to establish a first-leg lead. Barcelona dominated the opening exchanges and were unfortunate not to go ahead when Alexis Sanchez hit the crossbar in the ninth minute, with Cesc Fabregas miscuing from a brilliant position soon after. The Spain midfielder, playing against his future employers, then saw an effort cleared off the line by Ashley Cole, but it seemed like only a matter of time until Barcelona edged ahead.
Instead, on the stroke of half-time Didier Drogba broke the deadlock, turning home Ramires’ cross at the far post to send Stamford Bridge into raptures. Chelsea then faced a predictable second-half onslaught, with Adriano, Sanchez and Carles Puyol all going close before Pedro Rodriguez hit the post in stoppage time. Di Matteo’s charges somehow held on, though, winning the first leg 1-0 despite registering just a single shot on target all night.
“Tonight was about a great collective defensive performance,” Di Matteo said afterwards. “It wasn’t just our defenders: we needed to be able to close down the spaces as much as possible and limit Barcelona’s threat. Ultimately, with the quality of some of their individuals, they still create problems.
“Sometimes it feels like they have 20 players. They play like that against Real Madrid, against Milan, too. But our team were prepared to be patient in defence and not get frustrated. We looked very organised and the boys were really determined not to let them through.”
Chelsea redefined ‘backs to the wall’ in the second leg at the Camp Nou, yet despite the fact that Guardiola believes it was one of his Barcelona side’s best ever displays, the west Londoners escaped with a 2-2 draw which sent them through to the final. That game is remembered fondly seven years on, as is the equally improbable triumph over Bayern in Munich in the showpiece, but neither would have been possible without that 1-0 defeat of Guardiola’s all-conquering team on this day in 2012.