Chelsea F.C. vs F.C. Barcelona - a ceaseless fixation on officiating errors
Barcelona travelled to London in May 2009 on a trip that would be remembered for a number of reasons. When it seemed like Andres Iniesta's right foot had the last word in a fierce 180 minutes between the two things, it was actually the infamous Norwegian referee Tom Henning Overbo who made it to the headlines. At the end of the tie, "It's a f****** disgrace," screamed Chelsea forward Didier Drogba at Overbo drawing a red card in the process. Nine years later, Barcelona returned to Stamford for the second time since the infamous fixture of 2009. Yet, it seems like the cloud of Overbo's decisions and the tag of 'cheats' will follow Barcelona to Stamford Bridge on every single trip. Is there more to this story than meets the eye?
"The referee was inefficient. It was an adulterated result. When Deco [then a Barcelona player] produced a ridiculous dive in the area the referee didn't show him a yellow card. When I saw Rijkaard enter the referee's changing-room at half-time I couldn't believe it. When Drogba was sent off I wasn't surprised." Jose Mourinho did not hesitate to attack Barcelona after the referee after Chelsea 2-1 loss to Barcelona in February 2005. Chelsea did go on to win the second leg at home 4-2 and knock Barcelona out of the Champions League. However, this fixture is important for the fact that Jose Mourinho set the ball rolling for a decade of accusations against Barcelona for officiating errors. Did Rijkaard really approach Anders Frisk's changing room at halftime? No. Jose Mourinho later admitted to making a false accusation about Frank Rijkaard.
Mourinho is a shrewd manipulator of the press. His accusations were in line with his global strategy as a manager - create an 'us against the world' scenario. When he does overcome this as he did in the second leg, he and his team are heroes. He proudly claimed: "We have beaten the team that is – according to some – the best in the world." Although one wonders what happens when his team does not overcome such a scenario? For that, we move forward to February 2006.
Barcelona travelled to London for the first leg, a game that was marred by the sending off of Aiser Del Horno for a brutal foul on Lionel Messi. Barcelona's 1-2 victory was a tough pill to swallow for Jose who said, "Can Messi be suspended for acting? Barcelona is a cultural city with many theatres and this boy has learned very well". When Chelsea could not overcome Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the second leg, Jose did the obvious - point out to the referee. "We have not seen two games where we had 11 players versus 11 – that's all I can say," said Jose. For when Chelsea was unable to overcome an opponent, it was because everything was against his team.
This is by no means a criticism of Jose Mourinho, rather an acknowledgement of his incredibly well-executed press conferences. This strategy of 'us against the world' has worked well in the past for Jose with success in Porto, Chelsea and Inter Milan. The four fixtures Chelsea played against Barcelona were marred by accusations - not against the referee, but against Barcelona. Not only did this leave a mark of dislike for Barcelona in the minds of Chelsea fans, but also a sense of being cheated.
The infamous night at Stamford Bridge:
Firstly, as an F.C. Barcelona supporter, I am the first to put my hands up and say we were completely lucky to reach the finals of the 2009 Champions League. However, it is by no means the fault of Barcelona that Chelsea was knocked out in the semi-finals. Let's analyze each of the controversial decisions one by one.
The first controversial decision of the night came in the 23rd minute when Florent Malouda was fouled by Dani Alves on the left wing with Overbo awarding Chelsea a freekick just outside the box. Was it a penalty? The videos show Dani Alves was inside the penalty box upon contact but neither Malouda, not the ball inside the box - the freekick was a fair decision. The second decision came only moments later when Didier Drogba was fouled by Eric Abidal inside the penalty area which should have resulted in a penalty for Chelsea - the first decision that went against Chelsea's way on the night.
The third claim comes from Yaya Toure's strong battle with Didier Drogba in the second half. Lampard's ball towards Drogba finds him in a good position to score a goal with Toure the only player standing between him and a 1 vs 1 opportunity against Valdes. Both players were found tugging each other's shirts and Yaya Toure's slide tackle seemed to get the ball. Was it a clear penalty? No. Moments later, Eric Abidal was sent off after Nicolas Anelka went down after he tripped over his own foot. However, it is fair to say Eric Abidal was lucky to be on the pitch at that point after his foul on Drogba in the first half.
The next claim came in the 81st minute when Anelka's touch hit Gerrard Pique's outstretched arm. It seemed like an intentional handball that potentially prevented a shot on goal - a clear penalty for Chelsea denied. Finally, after conceding to Iniesta's goal, Michael Ballack's strike on the other side of the pitch hit Samuel Eto'o's outstretched arm - almost at his shoulder. On most occasion's that could be called a '50-50 chance' and a penalty would be a harsh call against Eto'o.
Am I justifying a poor officiating performance from Tom Henning Overbo? No. Overbo had at least 4 poor major decisions throughout the game, most against Chelsea - however, it was two clear penalties that Chelsea was denied and not four as it has been claimed by many. Barcelona reached the finals - no team is ever going to look back and deny an opportunity to be in the finals regardless of officiating errors.
Barcelona 0-0 Chelsea, Camp Nou, 28 April 2009
Chelsea's incredible defensive organization earned them a goalless draw at the Camp Nou. However, Xavi Hernandez complained at some decisions made by Wolfgang Stark - the referee for the first leg. Four important situations in the game can be examined to evaluate Xavi's claims.
Firstly, Chelsea's strategy of constant fouling to stop the flow of Barcelona's gameplay saw Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel committing a number of fouls. The former was involved in at least four bookable offences including two fouls on Andres Iniesta, one in each half, a drag back on Lionel Messi and a foul on Thierry Henry that actually saw him receive a much deserved yellow card. To say Ballack was lucky to be on the pitch at the end of the game is an understatement. Secondly, Andres Iniesta played Eto'o through on goal in the 42nd minute, but the opportunity was wrongly flagged offside.
Thirdly, Jose Bosingwa appeared to pull an already off balance, Thierry Henry, down in the 72nd minute - a possible penalty, but a harsh one. Additionally, Carles Puyol's booking for a foul on Essien that saw him miss the second leg was a harsh call by Stark. Any of these four decisions going Barcelona's way could've seen a completely different second leg at the Stamford Bridge for Barcelona would have either started with Carles Puyol or travelled with at least a goal advantage. Besides Chelsea would not have had Michael Ballack for the second leg.
Does Barcelona deserve the label of cheats?
The 180 minutes of football played between both teams were marred by poor officiating errors, while Barcelona was lucky to come out on top - referring to the team as 'cheats' is unjustified. Thanks to Jose's time in England, Barcelona were already seen as a team that is favoured by officials and the second leg in Stamford Bridge only put the nail in the coffin.
As for the English press - they blew this game out of proportions to the extent that Tom Henning Overbo received death threats - simply for committing human errors at his profession. Was it the lust to see an all-English final in the UEFA Champions League for the second season in a row during a time when the golden generation of their national team was seemingly going to win no silverware? Perhaps. Regardless - Barcelona are still remembered as cheats nine years late and unfairly so.
Football is a game that is marred by officiating errors. The nature of a referee's job makes it difficult to avoid these errors. Sometimes, you benefit from these errors and at other times you are at the receiving end. As we approach a mouth-watering clash between two European giants on Tuesday night, the semi-finals of 2009 must simply be remembered as a tie that the footballing world can look back on and see the progress being made to assist referees with their decisions. One can only hope no externalities hamper the game this time around.