Chelsea were at their resilient best to hold Barcelona to 0-0 draw in their Champions League semi-final first-leg at Camp Nou, leaving the tie delicately poised ahead of next week’s return encounter.
Barca were full of flair and poise, but Chelsea stood firm and limited the hosts to a few clear-cut opportunities. Didier Drogba wasting a glorious fist-half opening for the visitors, but Barca had the vast number of scoring opportunities over the 90 minutes.
In the second period alone, the Catalans spurned three golden opportunities to grab the lead.
Samuel Eto’o, Bojan Krkic and substitute Alex Hleb all should have found the net, while Chelsea had Petr Cech to thank for two world class saves to keep the tie alive ahead of next week’s game at Stamford Bridge.
Within a minute of the kick-off Henry won a free when Branislav Ivanovic brought him down. The resultant freekick from Xavi drifted to the far post where Eto’o was left unattended to head back across the face of goal to give Rafael Marquez the chance to finish from close range.
But after scooping the ball over the bar, the defender’s blushes were spared by the assistant referee, who flagged for an earlier offside.
Bosingwa was the man charged with suppressing Messi’s formidable talents, a labor that even Hercules may have turned his back on if given the choice. The Argentinean was probing with menace from the first kick-off, twice leaving Chelsea’s Portuguese full back in his wake in the opening quarter hour.
On 12 minutes, he was brought to the ground by his man marker, while four minutes later he skipped past him, to the delight of the roaring home support, before whipping a dangerous cross into the Chelsea box that Alex was at full stretch to clear from almost underneath his own cross bar.
The attacking impetus remained firmly with Barcelona. Eto’o fired in a shot from outside the area on 17 minutes that bounced harmlessly wide, before Henry skipped past Alex to create a one-on-one with Cech.
Luckily for the visitors’ keeper, Chelsea’s Brazilian center back snapped back at the former Gunner to rob him of the ball before he could get his shot away.
The home support were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived as Chelsea’s strong-arm tactics. The Nou Camp faithful screamed for bookings every time a player in yellow mistimed a tackle or upended an opponent, and Alex and Michael Ballack were both shown cards inside the first half hour for innocuous challenges.
Henry tested Cech on 33 with a powerful drive after being set-up by Andres Iniesta, but for all their probing and prodding, Barca failed to cut through and Chelsea stood tall.
And while the hosts toyed and teased in and around the Blues’ box without striking a lethal blow, it was Chelsea who had by far the best chance of the first half.
Marquez placed a poor pass across the edge of his own area that Drogba pounced on before bearing down on Victor Valdes’ goal. The Ivorian fired in a stinging shot that the Barca keeper could only parry, while the striker could not quite lift the rebound over the advancing Valdes with his second attempt.
Chelsea began the second half as they ended the first with a great chance to steal an away goal. Didier Drogba shaped to strike a freekick from the left-hand side of the Barca box before crossing for Ballack to head over from six yards out.
It was a brief break from the Barcelona tide of attacks. Pique almost found the ever-willing Alves running through the middle 12 minutes after the break, while Messi volleyed narrowly over from a deep corner two minutes later.
Then it was the turn of Alves to twice try his luck from distance, first with a stinging shot from the right side of the area that Cech did well to parry, before curling a freekick from 25 yards narrowly over the bar.
But if Drogba was guilty of missing a glorious chance at the end of the first half, then Eto’o was equally culpable midway through the second. The Cameroon striker turned brilliantly to beat Alex, before slipping the ball past John Terry and heading directly for Cech.
Alex managed to get back at him, but the striker turned back inside to leave the defender sprawling on the turf and just the keeper to beat. The Chelsea stopper has come in for more than his fair share of criticism in recent weeks, but he stood tall and managed to block Eto’o’s shot with his feet.
If Chelsea had Cech to thank for keeping them on level terms on this occasion, minutes later they were giving grateful glances towards the referee as he waved away Barca appeals for a penalty as Henry was hauled to the turf by Bosingwa.
As the seconds ticked away Chelsea grew increasingly anxious, while the home crowd became fraught and frustrated. And the mood inside the stadium was not helped by two late, glaring misses from the hosts.
First substitute Bojan headed a cross from Alves over the bar from barely three yards inside stoppage time, before Hleb ran through on goal only to be thwarted by Cech seconds before the referee blew his whistle to put an end to the encounter.
Barca may have had the edge in the battle, but it is Chelsea who will feel they are leading the war ahead of what promises to be a mouthwatering return.