Barcelona. 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 never-ending onslaught from the Spanish giants and displayed ruthless efficiency when 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 club football. The team was looking for a second Champions League title in three 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 league crown.
With coach Pep Guardiola yet to decide whether to stay at the club, it means his reign could end without a major title 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’s audacious lob right before halftime gave the advantage back to the Blues on aggregate, and the Spanish giants never found a way 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 final.
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 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. 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 three other Chelsea players. “Looking at the replay, it does look like a red card.”
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.