Rivalries are rarely forged these days in football. While a great many stand firmly cast as historic battles between two vengeful foes, we seldom see their creation unfold quite as dramatically in today’s game as we have in years gone by.
Further, football’s feuds struggle to carry themselves across the world, across the leagues and, without the fire being stoked, across the years.
Chelsea vs Barcelona is a rivalry to shatter this pattern; to transcend borders and to delight with its rich – if brief – history. Tonight turns over the first page of its latest chapter.
In over 50 years, the two giants of European football have only played one another 15 times, but ten of those games came from the same heated seven year period.
The rivalry isn’t forged on matches alone, however. Dodgy refs, death threats and various wars of words have ensured that this cross-country grudge match remains as fierce today as it ever did.
Starting fairly recently in 1999 – during Chelsea’s first ever Champions League campaign – the Blues’ antipathy for their superior Spanish opponents was established following an embarrassing 5-1 drubbing under the lights of Camp Nou. The west Londoners had gone into the game having won the first leg of the round 3-1, and to lose so emphatically at the hands of Louis van Gaal – everyone’s favourite self-appointed deity – set the wheels swiftly in motion for a bitter resentment to flow from Chelsea to Catalonia.
When Jose Mourinho stepped up to become the Premier League’s Special One in 2004, he certainly wasn’t chosen for his diplomatic abilities, and the Portuguese boss ensured this rivalry was one to be set in stone for years to come.
Having lost 2-1 in the last 16 of the 2005 Champions League, Mourinho questioned the integrity of referee Anders Frisk, leading to UEFA branding the Portuguese an ‘enemy of football’ and kick-starting the most intense era this rivalry has come to know.
Worse still, Frisk was forced into an early retirement following a series of death threats from red-faced, Carling swigging Chelsea fans who couldn’t quite see beyond the world of football in their frustrated little lives. We can’t quite imagine how threatening a death threat from somewhere like Chelsea can be, however. Being suffocated by quinoa salad and a giant pashmina hardly evokes knee-trembling terror.
Anyway, following Jose’s call to arms, Chelsea progressed to the quarter finals where they would face Bayern Munich.
The 4-2 second-leg victory that got them there included, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of Ronaldinho’s greatest ever goals and also his involvement in a post-game scuffle. Sadly, Samuel Eto’o claimed he was racially abused by a member of Chelsea’s staff and a UEFA disciplinary committee met to discuss no less than six separate incidents following the game. These include a bottle being thrown at Roman Abramovich and Mourinho’s refusal to attend a post-match press conference.
As a slap on the wrist, the gaffer was banned from watching both legs against Bayern for his comments and behaviour.
In typical Special One fashion, however, this was supposedly ignored and Mourinho reportedly snuck into Stamford Bridge hidden in a laundry basket to deliver team talks and make tactical changes. How special he must have felt with a pair of budgie smugglers draped over his head.
The fun doesn’t stop there, either. If ever there was a banter era for one rivalry, it’s got to be this one.
Barcelona enacted their revenge on Chelsea the following season, sending the English side home in the first knockout round; something we’re sure we can all laugh about.
In that same year – 2006 – Lionel Messi revealed some surprising truths that go to show just how heated this rivalry really is.
Speaking to The News of the World, he said “There are players here who hate Chelsea more than Real Madrid. [The aversion is] something worse than the Boca and River Plate rivalry or Brazil v Argentina.”
The volatile nature of these two clubs and their mutual contempt boiled over in one of the Champions League’s most infamous matches when the pair clashed in the 2009 semi-finals.
In the second-leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea were denied a total of four penalties – some of which were unquestionable stonewalls – and saw Didier Drogba, despite his match-ending injury, storm onto the pitch at full-time to lambaste the referee in a tirade of abuse even the moodiest of teenagers would be proud of.
Chelsea fans weren’t having it as they watched their side tumble out and were forced to look on as Blaugrana dismantled Manchester United in the League’s final.
Out came the Carling swiggers. The penalty denying man in black (or grey and orange, to be precise) was told, charmingly, to kill himself by Chelsea fans as tensions boiled over for the Disgruntled of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
Tempers have remained flared ever since, with the Blues knocking Barca out in impressive fashion, having gone down to ten men and facing a two goal mountain to climb in 2012. They went on to win the Champions League that year and their semi-final success was the last time these two behemoths battled it out.
Now, almost six years later, it’s time for another bout in the ring. But who will emerge victorious this on this occasion?
We can’t be sure, though one thing is for certain: this will be a battle to remember, another entry for the annals of footballing history to detail the greatest cross-European rivalry of the 21st Century. Blood, sweat and tears will be shed and football will be held up as the example of sporting pinnacle the world knows it can be.
That’s guaranteed. But one other thing is, too: Chelsea are gonna lose.