As the minutes wore on and Barcelona’s frustration continued, the use of the term ‘anti-football’ to describe Chelsea’s 1st leg performance became all too inevitable.
In fairness to Pep Guardiola post-match, he preferred to talk about his own side’s inability to take any of the twenty-four chances they created on the night, but plenty of observers have been quick to criticise Chelsea for daring to try and disrupt Barca’s rhythm.
One Spanish newspaper talked about football “turning it’s back” on a club that had “treated it so well”. Rubbish. Chelsea, or any other side for that matter, aren’t there to roll over and have their tummies tickled by Barca.
This is a semi-final in arguably the world’s most important club competition, not a beauty contest. Yes, Chelsea were cautious and defensive, but why take on the world’s best club side at their own game, when they’re far better at it than you are?!
We’re talking about a team with a goal difference in La Liga of + 96, the current UEFA Champions League holders, and in many people’s eyes one of the greatest, if not the greatest, club side of all time.
Chelsea, at the time of writing, are 6th in the Premier League and struggling to qualify for next season’s Champions League tournament – when it comes to playing open, expansive football they really aren’t in the same league.
What’s so brilliant about football and one of the reasons it’s watched by billions of people around the world, is that despite all that it’s still possible for Chelsea to find a way to beat Barcelona.
Simply because that might not be as pleasing on the eye doesn’t make it wrong – defensive concentration, determination and organisation are qualities that are just as worthy of victory as deft touches, exquisite passes and clinical finishes.
Anti-football, for me, is when players and coaches seek to stop another team, often containing more naturally gifted players, by being overly physical or even thuggish.
One classic example that immediately springs to mind is Cameroon’s win over Argentina in the opening game of the 1990 World Cup – Cameroon ended the game with nine-men and I’ll always remember the terrible challenge by Benjamin Massing on Claudio Caniggia, which resulted in one of his team’s red cards.
A more recent example could be the Netherlands tactics in last summer’s World Cup Final against Spain, a game which contained fourteen yellow cards and one red – leading one of the Dutch pioneer’s of ‘Total Football’ in the 1970s, Johan Cruyff, to accuse his fellow countryman of taking an “ugly path”.
The problem I have is that when it comes to the use of this term ‘anti-football’, the distinction has become blurred between that sort of outright foul-play and what is now commonly referred to as ‘parking the bus’.
The latter is another a term with negative connotations, a tactic to be dismissive and disdainful of, even in England, a footballing nation perceived as valuing hard-work, backs-to-the-wall passion and physicality, more than many other countries.
The truth is these aren’t dirty words and there are many, many different ways to win a football match within the rules – we have to get over this obsession with the ‘beautiful game’.
Only a tiny percentage of professional footballers are capable of playing to the standards Barca reach – Arsenal are perhaps the best English example of how copying/emulating it and consistently winning trophies at the same time is incredibly difficult.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d far rather watch Barcelona than Stoke and Lionel Messi is a genius who’d probably do OK on a wet Wednesday night at the Britannia – but the ability to stop, by fair means, players with more natural ability than you from expressing it, also deserves to be admired.
Pep Guardiola’s players had 72% of the possession in that first-leg against Chelsea, Barca are a team that average around three goals per-game, and have a star-player with 243 goals to his name at the age of 24.
I can only imagine the level of defensive concentration required from Chelsea, which will need to be even greater at the Camp Nou, where Barca are unbeaten in 30 games this season, winning 27 of them and scoring 104 goals in the process.
So, is too much being made of the fact that Messi now hasn’t scored in seven games against Chelsea? Definitely. Will Barcelona overturn the first-leg deficit? Probably.
But by playing the way they did in the first-leg, Chelsea have given themselves a glimmer of hope, and against opposition of Barca’s caliber that’s to be admired not criticised.