Cech keeps Chelsea feet on ground ahead of Barcelona test
When you consider the low points in Chelsea's journey this season it is remarkable they have made it this far.
There were the home defeats to Arsenal and Liverpool in the league and the defeat to Queen's Park Rangers in October when the slide under Andre Villas-Boas began in earnest. Then came the defeat to Aston Villa on New Year's Eve, and those to Everton and to West Bromwich Albion, the game that did for AVB. Before then there was the humbling loss to Napoli in Italy.
There have been 11 defeats in all competitions, which is not the record you would expect of a team one game away from eliminating the runaway favourites for the Champions League in the semi-finals tonight. But this, after all, is Chelsea. They rolled with the punches in 2009 after the regime of Luiz Felipe Scolari was ended and won an FA Cup four months after he was sacked. In a crisis season, that is not a bad outcome. Just ask Arsenal.
The Champions League is not supposed to be the kind of trophy a team stumble upon and certainly no one beats the current Barcelona team by accident. But since he took over as Barcelona manager in 2008, Pep Guardiola has faced 52 clubs and Chelsea are the only one his teams have never beaten – Barça went through on away goals in 2009. There is undoubtedly something about Chelsea that gets under Barcelona's skin and results bear it out. The last three games between the two clubs at the Nou Camp have been draws. Barcelona's last win over Chelsea at home was in February 2006.
Petr Cech, a veteran of the modern Chelsea's rivalry with Barcelona, is the serious type, not given to talking about luck, but he did so yesterday on a couple of occasions. He admitted that Chelsea were "very lucky" in the first leg but said that in the past, Barcelona had been "luckier". "It [Barcelona] is a great team," he said. "We always try our best to find a way to play well against them. Of course, we've put ourselves in a very good position by winning that first leg. Now we have 90 minutes to get to the final."
Asked whether Jose Mourinho had offered advice on beating Barcelona, Cech deadpanned that his former manager had held a tactical meeting with the Chelsea players two hours ago. That is as about as jokey as it gets with the Chelsea goalkeeper, a serious man who has witnessed every Chelsea managerial divorce since Mourinho and survived to tell the tale. There is not much that rattles him.
Even when he was asked whether he could have envisaged a season like this one, Cech said he could have "imagined a lot of things". "It's true there were moments when everything looked more complicated and we had to go through. Thankfully we've done this and now we want to carry on. But you have things happening in football quite fast. It can go from bad to great, and great to bad, in a split second. We've kind of split the season in two parts, where we weren't doing as well as we'd wished in the Premier League, but we've done well in the Champions League."
Barcelona's two successive defeats going into this game have been seized upon by some as evidence that their spell has been broken. The usually indomitable Lionel Messi missed training on Sunday, although he was back yesterday. In his press conference yesterday, Gerard Pique was so taken with the downbeat mood he was moved to remind the room exactly what this Barcelona team have achieved.
It would be foolish in the extreme to believe that this Barcelona team are there for the taking. They may be less sure of themselves than two weeks ago and playing in front of a crowd that even Pique described as prone to a "pessimistic" disposition, but no one would accuse them of being vulnerable.
There are an abundance of statistics that illustrate how good this Barcelona team have been in recent times. The last time they were beaten three games in a row was 2003 but perhaps the best of all is the fact that they have had more possession than their opposition in the last 243 games they have played. Whatever happens tonight, Chelsea can be sure that they will not have much of the ball. But then they probably already knew that.
Chelsea will not kid themselves about this game: it will have to be the performance of their lives and with a team that is a strange mish-mash of the best of their past, some young ones and others who would not have got a game for Chelsea three years ago. When they were eliminated by Barcelona in the semi-finals 2009, on away goals, Chelsea's goal was a brilliant strike by Michael Essien. One cruciate injury down the road, he is now in the B-string.
In 2009, John Obi Mikel was on the bench in the semi-final second leg against Barcelona rather than preparing, as tonight, to play a key role in the game. It would have been hard to envisage Raul Meireles being picked ahead of Michael Ballack but these are the players whom Roberto Di Matteo has to work with and he has taken this less spectacular squad a long way,
"It's difficult to compare teams," Cech said. "They are three years apart, and you can always say this team was 'great', or that team wasn't. You look at the results and, last time we didn't get to the final. This time we have a chance to do so. But I wouldn't compare the team. It's three years later, we're more experienced, and anything can happen."
Chelsea's Champions League campaign this season, ever since the 3-1 defeat to Napoli in the first leg of the round-of-16 tie, has been different to all others. The club's position has been so dire that there has been a more realistic mood. The pressure has been off. The same mood was discernible again yesterday.
As for Barcelona, the pressure is most certainly on. It is quite possible that once the European champions start moving the ball around the Nou Camp tonight and the whole stadium wakes up, notions of pressure and expectation may seem incidental to the night's proceedings. But last night it felt like Chelsea were the team with nothing to lose.
Key confrontations: Where tonight's match will be won and lost
Dani Alves v Ramires
A battle of Brazilian internationals – Ramires will have to stay defensively disciplined, with Alves always looking to surge forward. Ramires, however, has pace and will start counter-attacks.
Gerard Pique v Didier Drogba
Pique is expected to be brought back into the Barça team to provide a physical challenge for Drogba, whose powerful style will suit chasing long balls in the vast Nou Camp.
Alexis Sanchez v Ashley Cole
Sanchez is not as effective as the injured David Villa, but his direct running caused problems in the first leg. Cole will have to be careful, as a booking would rule him out of the final.