at the Union Buildings in Pretoria
What appeared to be an awkward derby squeezed between the two legs of a European semi-final produced pure satisfaction for Roberto Di Matteo as he prepared for Barcelona.
There was another lock-out against a fluent passing side spearheaded by a goal-scoring genius and a point to the Barclays Premier League total, acquired while resting most of his first team.
He looked like the cat who got the crème Catalan, even before further evidence of Barcelona’s fallibility with a defeat by Real Madrid and words of encouragement from within the Arsenal camp.
“It is far from impossible,” said Arsene Wenger, considering Chelsea’s chances in Tuesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg. “They go there in an even better position than us. They won 1-0 and that’s a fantastic result.”
Arsenal took a 2-1 lead to the Nou Camp last year but lost 3-1 after Robin van Persie was sent off.
“The team we saw the other night (at Stamford Bridge) is not the Barcelona of last year and Chelsea rested eight players against us,” said Wenger.
“Messi at the moment looks a bit tired. He still is dangerous, even tired, but they managed to block a few shots from him in the first-leg and usually he has such a small back-lift it is difficult to do that.
“That means he is not as sharp as he was before and if they defend like they did in the first leg they have a chance.”
Wenger also backs the tactics of disruption and counter-attack deployed by Di Matteo against Barcelona, which were criticised by the Spanish last week.
“Inter Milan beat them that way and nobody took any credit from Inter Milan,” said the Arsenal boss.
“Against Barcelona you understand that. If they played like that for the whole season it is more difficult to understand. In a European Cup game you can understand it.
“Barcelona will have 70 per cent of the ball but you want to try to score a goal as well. That would mentally be a massive blow to them because last year when we scored, it was a lucky goal, but I could see suddenly they became very nervous.”
Despite complaints about their congested schedule, it is Chelsea who head into the second leg looking fresh — both physically and mentally – since the managerial change has injected new energy into the dressing room.
Form is strong (one defeat in 14 games under Di Matteo), luck is holding (Arsenal, like Barcelona, hit the woodwork twice) and Gary Cahill, John Terry and Petr Cech are forging a good defensive base. Didier Drogba missed Saturday’s game with a swollen knee but hopes to be fit to travel to Spain and fulfil the lone-striker role in the second leg of the semi-final.
“Our game-plan will probably be the same,” said Cahill.
“We’re under no illusions how hard it’s going to be but we’ve given ourselves a good start. You probably need an element of luck. You need everyone’s concentration levels to be where they were the other night and you need everyone sticking to their job and working hard.”
Having signed from Bolton in January, it will be Cahill’s first visit to the Nou Camp since a family holiday when he was 10 years old but there will be years of experience around him.
“We’re going there with fantastic, experienced players who have won trophies year after year,” said Cahill. “If you’re not a big character or mentally strong I don’t think you’d survive playing in these games or at this club.
“It rubs off on you. You learn from these experienced players.
“We’re going there with a strong squad that’s in good form but everyone in the world knows how good Barcelona are at home. It’s going to be a tough task for us.”
Chelsea’s best chance of securing Champions League football next season may be to win the trophy, but the point at Arsenal on Saturday keeps them in the race for a top four league finish. Three of their final four games are at home and one is against rivals Newcastle.
The Gunners, however, squandered the chance to secure third by taking only one point from successive home games against Wigan and Chelsea.
Mikel Arteta’s injury was a blow – Arsenal are yet to win without him – and Theo Walcott’s season is over after he pulled a hamstring on Saturday.
‘We are still in the driving seat,’ said Wenger.
He believes six points from games at Stoke and West Bromwich and at home to Norwich will clinch third and qualification for next season’s Champions League without fretting about a play-off in August or the threat that Chelsea might win in Europe and dump the Premier League’s fourth-placed team into the Europa League. – Daily Mail