Lionel Messi walked off the Camp Nou pitch in tears, as one of the most dominant eras in European club football came to a crashing halt.
He wasn’t the only one shaking his head in disbelief.
Despite going a man and two goals down in the first half, Chelsea pulled off one of the unlikeliest comebacks in Champions League history on Tuesday, earning a 2-2 draw against Barcelona that sent the London club into the final 3-2 on aggregate and eliminated the defending champion.
For the second time in two weeks, Chelsea withstood a continuous onslaught from the Spanish giants and displayed ruthless efficiency when their rare opportunities finally presented themselves.
“It’s a historical night for the club (and) I believe we deserve to be in the final,” said Chelsea’s interim manager Roberto Di Matteo, whose team will face either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the May 19 final at Munich’s Allianz Arena. “We had a difficult season but we seem to always get something special out when we need to. That’s part of the DNA of these players.”
For Barcelona, the result could mark the end of one of the most successful spells in European club football. The team was bidding for a third Champions League title in four years, and this loss came right on the heels of a 2-1 defeat to Real Madrid that all but ended its hopes of a fourth straight domestic league crown.
With coach Pep Guardiola yet to decide whether to stay at the club, it means his reign could end without a major this year — although the Copa del Rey is still up for grabs as a consolation.
“It hurts to lose this way because we were better and we gave it our all,” said Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas. “We needed the perfect game but we weren’t’ perfect because we lacked goals.”
Despite coming into the second leg with a 1-0 lead, Chelsea’s hopes had looked all but over after going down 2-0 and having captain John Terry sent off for a needless foul in the first half.
But Ramires’ audacious lob right before halftime gave the advantage back to the Blues on aggregate, and the Spanish giants never found away to recover after the break. After Messi blasted a penalty against the crossbar and hit the post with another shot, substitute Fernando Torres netted in injury time to make it 3-2 on aggregate and ensure that Chelsea reached the May 19 final at Allianz Arena in Munich.
While Chelsea’s players celebrated, Messi trudged off the field with his head buried in his shirt.
“We’re here because of this kid,” Guardiola said. “I have no doubt he’s going through a bad moment. That’s the sad thing about this sport is that these things exist.”
For Chelsea, this was the crowning achievement in a remarkable and improbable turnaround led by di Matteo, who has also guided the team into the FA Cup final after manager Andre Villas-Boas was fired in March.
Chelsea won the first leg 1-0 at Stamford Bridge last week after Didier Drogba scored with the hosts’ only shot on target amid a series of wasted chances by Barcelona.
It is Chelsea’s first Champions League final since losing to Manchester United on penalties four years ago, and gives owner Roman Abramovich another chance to finally capture the elusive title in Europe’s premier club competition.
Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta had put Barcelona up 2-0 by the 44th as the Spanish club again dominated possession from the start — owning 73 percent for the game. In between those goals, Terry was given a straight red card for putting his knee into the back of Alexis Sanchez, making a Chelsea fightback look even more unlikely.
“I feel as I let them down, I’ve apologized to them,” said Terry, who will be absent from the final alongside another three Chelsea players to suspension. “Looking at the replay, it does look like a red card.”
But just like at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea proved very opportunistic once it created a rare counterattack.
Ramires ran onto a long through ball from Frank Lampard to send an impressive lob over Victor Valdes to calm Chelsea’s nerves and boost the visitors morale as they headed back into the dressing room.
“With 2-0 at halftime we would have believed we could get it but this 2-1 was a little bit psychologically bad for us,” said Guardiola, whose team also lost Gerard Pique in the first half to a concussion. “The penalty we didn’t score and they got stronger.”
Barcelona’s inability to convert its possession advantage into goals was symbolized by Messi’s rare miss from the spot in the 49th, as the Argentina winger has now been held scoreless in seven meetings against Chelsea. Barcelona hasn’t been able to beat Chelsea in the last seven meetings, either.
Messi hasn’t scored in his last three games, after netting 63 times previously this season.
Torres, who has struggled all season, was then sent clear in acres of space and rounded Valdes to slot the ball into an empty net in injury time — his eighth goal in 11 games against Barcelona.
“We knew this is how we had to play against Barcelona, even if sometimes it’s not so attractive,” said Torres, who replaced Drogba with 10 minutes left. “We used our strengths well and it worked for us in both games. They had their chances but they didn’t finish and Ramires’ goal gave us life.”
Cech was solid in Chelsea’s goal as he stuck his foot out in the 19th to deny Messi following a slick exchange with Fabregas and also denied Javier Mascherano late in the second half. Sanchez saw his 54th-minute header fall wide of the near post before Cech stepped out to block Cuenca’s shot after Drogba had tested Valdes with a long ball from inside the Chelsea half.
Chelsea, which was eliminated by Barcelona in the 2009 semifinals after a contentious second leg, will be missing four players for the Munich final after Ramires, Branislav Ivanovic and Raul Meireles were all booked.