And so the greatest show on earth rumbles into its final acts. Dispatched have been the bit part players and now remain only the finest. And Chelsea.
Real Madrid set up a semi-final date with Bayern Munich after comfortably putting to an end this Cinderella story of the competition for a second season running, sending Apoel Nicosia spiraling out of the competition 8-2 on aggregate.
While Jose Mourinho’s men were running riot in Madrid, Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea were lumbering towards qualification having been handed the most pleasant of leg-ups through Benfica’s indiscipline.
A 1-0 advantage form the first leg in Lisbon was converted into a 3-1 aggregate win in decidedly uncomfortable fashion despite Frank Lampard’s early penalty settling nerves before Maxi Pereira further diminished an already famished Benfica defence with his first half sending off.
Javi Garcia’s second half header sent Blue hearts fluttering before Raul Meireles, with the jeers from the first leg in the Stadio de Luz still ringing in his ears, slammed the ball home with minutes to go and settle the tie.
And so the semi-finals of the self-styled premier competition of European football have been settled, and it just so happens to have thrown up two rivalries, not defined by geography and proximity, but by events that have shaped al four club’s history.
Barca and Chelsea need only glance back into the recent past for motivation. The last time these two met the deal that ensured any future meeting between the pair would be set against the context of their burgeoning rivalry.
Andrea Iniesta’s late, late strike at Stamford Bridge bought to an end a tie which seemed to epitomise all the rivalry had become – it was a tight tetchy game with just two goals across both legs, both coming at Stamford Bridge, while controversy reared its ugly head to leave a stain on the tie.
The succession of penalty appeals turned down by referee Tom Ovrebo before Iniesta’s effort in the dying minutes prompted Didier Drogba’s now infamous full-time rant with injustice and indignity souring the night air in west London, while then caretaker boss Guus Hiddink was involved in some ugly scenes on the sidelines after Iniesta’s goal.
For Barcelona, the result that put them into the final against Manchester United meant salvation, revenge and retribution in one fell swoop, for the goal-scorer in particular who was dropped for the 2006 final having also missed out against Chelsea in the last 16 that year.
"I put my heart and soul into that shot,” Iniesta said after the game. “The ball went into the net in the only part of the goal where it could've gone inI don't know what went through my head after I scored the goal.
Of course the heart of the rivalry stems from the Barcelona and manager Pep Guardiola’s protagonist occupying the Madrid hot seat these days, and a quick flurry of meetings between the two clubs over a two year period.
Last six meetings have seen four draws & one win each, with 30 yellows & two reds shown, but just 12 goals scored, but that tells only half the story of a battle which was fought as much in the press as it was on the pitch
In a similar manner to his tenure at the Bernabeu, Jose Mourinho sought to ruffle the feathers of a Barcelona side that while weren’t the fully formed machine they are these days, still represented the best European football had to offer as they held the trophy aloft that year having beaten Arsenal.
Back in 2005 with Chelsea emerging as a genuine European force under the former Porto boss Barcelona represented the greatest challenge on offer to the Blues, a task Mourinho took upon himself with relish.
The Last 16 victory over Barcelona, sealed with a late John Terry goal in a 4-2 victory at Stamford Bridge that year was a genuine landmark in Chelsea’s history, but before the dawn came the darkest night, which prompted UEFA to declare Mourinho as ‘the enemy of football”.
His assertion that referee Anders Frisk, considered then amongst the finest in the game, had been seen talking and colluding with Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard at half-time during the 2-1 first leg defeat that saw Drogba sent off which prompted death threats to be sent to the Swede forced him to quit the game.
While Mourinho was roundly criticised amidst calls from some referees to strike over his comments, he had the last laugh as progress in the competition was sealed in the most dramatic of fashions by Terry’s goal.
A year later he was on the receiving end of a beating as Barcelona gained the sweetest revenge thanks to a sublime Ronaldinho goal that meant the game ended 1-1 and sent the Spanish side through.
Once more Mourinho was up to his usual tricks, accusing Lionel Messi of diving in the first leg while Asier del Horno saw red. The two teams would be drawn against once another in the group stages but by then too much had been said and done.
"I'm not a guy who believes in revenge," Rijkaard said after the game. "It was very important to go through in a wonderful tournament. For me it doesn't matter who we beat, we have to go on. Revenge doesn't come into it.”
For a man caught in the bombardment of Mourinho’s media offensive, he was kidding no one.