I still remember that Friday afternoon back in December 2004 when I heard what the round of 16 ties for the Champions League were. There were so many great ties. Arsenal were facing German giants Bayern Munich. Capello and Zidane were facing old friends as Real Madrid and Juventus were pitted together. Sir Alex would be facing Italian champions AC Milan for the first time in his career. But no tie captured our fevered expectations more than Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea machine coming up against La Liga leaders, Barcelona.
Up until then, Chelsea versus Barcelona had to be as exciting a round of 16 tie as there had ever been. On one side was Chelsea, the new jack of European football that had been bankrolled in spectacular fashion. This was years before the likes of Manchester City, PSG and RB Leipzig were somewhat commonplace. As such, Chelsea’s multi-million pound spending and subsequent league dominance was fascinating to watch. Then there was Jose Mourinho, the new kid on the block, managerially speaking. He had navigated his first few months in a new country and league with little fuss and in doing so threatened the old order of Wenger’s Gunners and Fergie’s United.
On the other side was Barcelona, a reawakened giant of the game. Managed by the relatively modest Frank Rijkaard, the Catalan club were setting the standards in their domestic league. They weren’t just playing some of the best football in Europe but for the first time in a while, they were allying that with consistency. Along with AC Milan and Juventus, Barcelona could consider themselves as one of the best teams in Europe. If Chelsea had Mourinho to thank for their change in fortunes, Barcelona had their smiling playmaker, Ronaldinho.
Over the course of 2004, the Brazilian had established himself as the best player in the world. His consistently exhilarating performances helped spark Barcelona back to life after a mediocre period in the club’s history. He was the fusion of rugged athleticism and pure fantasy – the best of his type the world had seen since Ronaldo. That isn’t to say Thierry Henry wasn’t simply magical at the time. And at Barcelona he had support from the likes of Deco, Eto’o and Giuly. But he was quite simply sprinkled with star dust. If Chelsea were to advance they would have to find a way to keep him quiet.
Of course this was always going to be easier said than done. So when Chelsea raced to a commanding 3-0 lead in the second leg – with less than 20 minutes on the clock – you can understand Mourinho’s men taking their eyes of the ball a little bit. After all, the goals from Gudjohnsen, Lampard and Duff meant that Chelsea now led Barcelona 4-2 on aggregate. They had the away goal, the aggregate lead, home advantage and the meanest defense in Europe to protect it. Enter Ronaldinho.
The Brazilian playmaker’s first contribution was to put away a penalty given away by Paolo Ferreira. Granted it was just a penalty, but it was a high pressure kick. By scoring it, Ronaldinho cancelled out Chelsea’s away goal advantage. But just a few minutes later, he shocked Stamford Bridge to almost complete silence. There wasn’t a lot of apparent danger when Olegeur sent a long pass into Chelsea’s box. In fact Terry and Carvalho almost collided in trying to get a good clearance. Unfortunately Terry’s clearance fell at the feet of Andres Iniesta just outside the box. Showing the type of quick thinking that he’d become famous for, he promptly laid the ball off to Ronaldinho and made a dash into the box in anticipation of the return pass. But that wouldn’t work – not in this situation. Ronaldinho was now facing four defenders in front of him and impending pressure from Lampard and Makelele. Talk about an impossible situation. And yet within three seconds of receiving Iniesta’s pass, the ball was in the back of the net. The beauty of goals like this one is that you need to watch instant replay two or three times over to confirm what you saw.
Second 1: Ronaldinho control’s the ball and quickly assesses his options. The only other brown jersey he can see (Iniesta’s) may have run into an offside position. He has to take this on by himself.
Second 2: He waves his right boot to and fro over the ball, all the time assessing the defenders in front of him and Cech’s position in the goal. He sees what he has to do.
Second 3: He scoops the ball into the right hand corner of Cech’s goal. Amazingly enough, this is the same side of the goal Cech was standing in. Perfect execution – and with no backlift.
Ultimately it would all be for naught. When Pierluigi Collina blew the full time whistle, not many viewers were thinking of the genius feat of skill they had seen about an hour ago. Chelsea had won an emotionally charged tie 5-4 aggregate after Terry scored the winning goal midway through the second half. Chelsea were headed to the quarter finals where they would meet Bayern Munich. For Barcelona, they had to focus on domestic challenges and leave their European dream for next season. In any case they still had Ronaldinho and that was a heck of a consolation.