STIRRING SEMI-FINAL MEMORIES: PART TWO

In the second part of our reflective look at previous Champions League semi-finals, we recall three memorable games from over the past six years.

Liverpool and Barcelona were the opponents, and all of the ties were closely-fought encounters.

Fortunately, our luck in the competition was beginning to change…

2008 – Liverpool
Yet again, the draw pitted us against Liverpool in the semi-finals of the 2008 competition, with the Blues desperate to avenge the previous two defeats at the same stage.

This was our fourth semi-final in the competition, and we were yet to taste victory. Surely this was going to be our time.

Dirk Kuyt drove the home side in front three minutes before the break in the first leg, and Chelsea supporters could have been forgiven for thinking pain, anguish and misery were looming ominously once more.

Crucially, however, on this occasion, as opposed to our two previous contests, we were due to play the second leg at home. We were afforded a huge slice of fortune when, in the fifth minute of added time, a speculative cross by Salomon Kalou was diverted into his own net by John Arne Riise.

Those supporters packed into the Kop behind the goal placed their heads in their hands, well aware the complexion of the tie had just changed significantly.

Was this going to be a case of third time lucky?

We were now on level terms, having scored an away goal, going into the return, and when Didier Drogba fired us in front the Ivorian celebrated in front of the Liverpool dugout, an obvious response to comments made ahead of the match.

Two players who would go on to play for Chelsea – Yossi Benayoun and Fernando Torres – combined for Liverpool to equalise on the night, sending the game into extra time, but the contest swung back in our favour when Michael Ballack was awarded a penalty.

Lampard, playing for the first time since the passing of his mother, was the man entrusted with taking the kick. The whole stadium, aside from those situated in the away end, and many neutrals watching across the globe were willing him to score. Even the TV commentary wished him luck.

The midfielder didn’t disappoint. He displayed nerves of steel to stride forward and dispatch his kick into the bottom corner, sparking an outpouring of emotion, both from the player himself and his jubilant team-mates.

The atmosphere inside Stamford Bridge was electric and our first Champions League final was in sight.

Shortly afterwards Drogba scored his second of the night to make it 3-1, sweeping home a Nicolas Anelka pull-back to all but secure our place in the final.

A Ryan Babel strike from distance set up a nervy finish, but the Blues held on to secure an all-English Champions League final against Manchester United in Moscow.

Avram Grant and the players celebrated on the pitch; we’d finally got the better of Liverpool in the competition and we were heading to Moscow for arguably the biggest game in the club’s history.

Celebrations against Liverpool in 2008

2009 – Barcelona
Just a year after suffering final heartbreak, losing to Manchester United on penalties in Russia, the Blues looked set to reach the tournament showpiece again, only to be denied in the cruellest manner possible by Barcelona.

Going into the first leg at the Camp Nou, few expected a Chelsea side under the stewardship of Guus Hiddink to be able to nullify a potent Barcelona attack, one which included Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry.

A wonderful collective defensive display, however, saw the home side limited to only a handful of real clear-cut opportunities. Jose Bosingwa, filling in for the injured Ashley Cole at left-back, rarely let Messi out of his sight, and the best opportunity of the game fell to Didier Drogba, who was unable to convert when clean through on goal.

Optimism among supporters was high going into the return at the Bridge, and we started the game on the front foot, taking the lead after just nine minutes courtesy of a stunning Michael Essien volley, which crashed into the back of the net off the underside of the bar.

Florent Malouda in action against Barcelona

With our tails up, Florent Malouda was then denied what looked like a clear penalty by referee Tom Ovrebo, with three further Chelsea penalty appeals also turned down.

Like the first leg, we produced another strong defensive display, and while Barcelona, who had Eric Abidal sent off in the second half, were enjoying plenty of possession, we looked as though we were going to hold on and set up a second successive final against Manchester United.

As the Blues pressed for a second goal, one that would surely have put the tie beyond the Spaniards, we had another two penalty claims rejected. Firstly, when Abidal tugged on the shirt of Drogba and again when Gerard Pique clearly handled as he attempted to thwart Anelka.

You got the feeling it wasn’t going to be our night, and so it proved.

In added time at the end of the game, when a tired Essien could only half-clear, the ball found its way to Andres Iniesta, whose right-footed strike dipped over Petr Cech and into the top corner of the net, undoing all of our hard work and leaving Chelsea players and supporters crestfallen.

There was still time for more drama, and another penalty appeal, this time as Michael Ballack’s volley cannoned against the hand of Eto’o, but once again the decision went Barcelona’s way, allowing Pep Guardiola’s side to progress on away goals.

Our run of bad luck in the Champions League was showing no sign of letting up.

2012 – Barcelona
Having experienced disappointing campaigns in 2010 and 2011, going out to Inter Milan and Manchester United respectively, we were back in the semi-finals in 2012, and were once again paired with Barcelona.

Our run to the last four was full of drama; a 3-0 win over Valencia in the group stages ensured our progression, and after Roberto Di Matteo had replaced Andre Villas-Boas at the helm, we overturned a 3-1 deficit against Napoli in the round of 16, winning 4-1 at home on an unforgettable night at the Bridge.

At the time, Barcelona were widely regarded as the best team in the world, perhaps the best club side ever, and though their quality was apparent over the two legs, the Blues produced two stunning displays to reach the final.

Didier Drogba scored the only goal of the game at home in the first leg, after Alexis Sanchez had hit the bar and Ashley Cole produced a wonderful clearance off the line to deny Cesc Fabregas.

Petr Cech, John Terry and Gary Cahill were outstanding, throwing themselves in the way of everything the Spanish side conjured up, and we somehow survived a late onslaught as Pedro struck the post and Carles Puyol missed a great chance.

In Spain, the Blues suffered a nightmare first half, falling 2-0 behind thanks to goals from Sergio Busquets and Iniesta, before being reduced to 10 men when skipper Terry was sent off.

At that point, it looked as though the second half would be a damage limitation exercise, but right on the stroke of the break we were given a reprieve when Ramires scored an outrageous chip to stun the home supporters.

Ramires scores against Barcelona

The second half may have lasted a total of less than 50 minutes, but for those Chelsea fans packed high up in the Camp Nou stands, and the rest watching on television, it felt like an eternity.

Put simply, we defended for our lives, offering little or no attacking threat, but was there any other option?

Our luck appeared to have run its course when Drogba brought down Fabregas in the penalty area, but Messi, who is still yet to score against the Blues, struck the bar from the resulting spot kick.

With the hosts pouring forward at every opportunity we were clinging on but, as Ashley Cole hooked a clearance forward in the dying minutes, and with every Barcelona player in the Chelsea half, Fernando Torres was clean through on goal.

The Spanish striker kept his cool, waltzed around Victor Valdes and rolled the ball into the empty net, sending us through to the final and, against all the odds, capping the most remarkable of comebacks.

Given the manner of our route to the final, it came as no surprise when the Blues got the better of Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena, their home stadium, to lift the trophy.

Drogba forced extra-time with a late equaliser, Cech saved a Robben penalty to keep the scores level, and both players were heroes in the shoot-out.

After so many years of frustration in the competition, our luck had changed in emphatic fashion.

Chelsea, at last, were Champions League winners.

We return to Spain next Tuesday for the first leg of our semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Two European heavyweights battling to secure a place in the final. What way it goes remains to be seen but, if history is anything to go by, expect an entertaining encounter.

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