White hankies, Elvis and Zico

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It’s not often you see fans celebrating a place in the last four of the UEFA Champions League by calling for their coach to be sacked.

But that’s what happened at Camp Nou where a frustrated minority of Barcelona fans waved their white handkerchiefs at Frank Rijkaard as he did what coaches are wont to do: took his best player – in this case Bojan Krkic – off with a few minutes to go to save his legs for big games to come.

Waving white hankies in Barcelona is, like Everton fans shouting “Taxi”, often a sign that a coach’s days are numbered.

The fury was understandable. Barcelona may have reached the semi-finals but, against unfancied Schalke, they were so lacklustre it must count as the biggest misuse of talent since contractual obligations forced Elvis Presley to sing Old Macdonald, complete with farmyard animal noises on the back of a truck in one of his movies.

Barca fans dish out the dreaded white hanky treatment 

Only four players gave a display worthy of the rich football tradition epitomised by the Barcelona shirt. And two of those were playing for Schalke: defensive colossus Marcelo Bordon and sparky midfielder Jermaine Jones.

Only Xavi and Bojan did the business for the home side though Yaya Toure scored the lucky winner that Schalke, much the better side in the first half, didn’t deserve to concede.

There’s talk of Barca buying Schalke keeper Manuel Neuer, who made one astonishing save to deny Xavi. On the evidence of this game they’d be better off buying Bordon and sticking him in the centre of defence.

To do the unthinkable, Schalke needed to maintain a certain tempo but with Italian referee Roberto Rossetti blowing for a foul everytime Thierry Henry lost his balance that was never going to happen. The one virtue of such pedantic refereeing is that the officials don’t normally miss much but Rossetti and his assistants completely failed to notice Abidal wrestling Schalke striker Soren Larsen to the ground in the penalty area.

Ultimately, I don’t think it changed the result. As the game became increasingly sporadic and fragmented, Schalke ran out of ideas. But they deserved at least a draw for the ease, intelligence and sharpness with which they opened up Barcelona’s defence in the first 20 minutes. The one consolation for Rijkaard is that, surely, Barcelona cannot play that badly again.

If Schalke ran out steam, Fenerbahce failed against Chelsea because they ran out of faith.

Zico obviously believed the Turkish champions could do it. They had the technique, the tactics (a high ball into the box where Ashley Cole ought to have been standing always seemed to cause consternation) but not, from the way they played, the conviction.

Perhaps they missed the galvanising experience and personality of the injured Roberto Carlos. With no obvious leader, no ‘coach on the pitch’ if you will, Fenerbahce looked good as the game wore on, created the game’s best passing sequence (a lovely cross-field move that started with a back heeled pass out of trouble), but never really troubled the Chelsea goal.

The joy of watching the game on ITV4 was becoming reacquainted with Peter Drury’s stentorian, sub-Churchillian style. “It is not a given,” he announced in his best “fight them on the beaches” manner just before kick-off.

But Drury, like any commentator trying to reconcile patriotism and objectivity, was soon caught in a moral maze. A Fenerbahce striker whose natural momentum seemed to doom him to fall in the penalty area was lucky, Drury announced, not to be booked for simulation whereas the irrepressible (and, judging from his gestures, seriously unhappy) Didier Drogba “did very well to earn Chelsea that free-kick” on the edge of the area.

Chelsea won not because they were brilliant – though they were on top in the first 20 minutes and Ballack’s headed goal was beautifully done – but because Fenerbahce ran out of belief. As the Blues retreated, stopped attacking down the flanks and allowed Fenerbahce to pass the ball around, the Stamford Bridge faithful were reduced to singing “We’re supposed to be at home”.

Early Ballack header sets Chelsea on their way to semis 

It wasn’t pretty but it was enough. On form, Liverpool and Manchester United should meet in the final. But the knock-out stages of the Champions League seem to have evolved a sophisticated system of checks and balances where the team that does best in one round goes out in the next.

And Chelsea have, like Milan last year, developed a useful knack of winning without dazzling anyone with their football. All season long, I have had a strange feeling – last experienced somewhere around my left shoulder – that Roman Abramovich may yet get his dream final.

If not, it’ll be white hankies for Avram.