Barcelona striker Lionel Messi reacts to the end of the match against Chelsea… (Manu Fernandez / Associated…)
It was like Michael Jordan missing a game-winning free throw or LeBron James bouncing a dunk off the rim. It was Justin Verlander losing a World Series game on a wild pitch or Eli Manning blowing the Super Bowl with an interception in the end zone.
It's rare that the biggest and best players in any sport fail to deliver in the clutch — that, after all, is how they got to the be the biggest and best. But it happened on successive days in last week's UEFA Champions League semifinals, with both Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo missing penalty kicks that conceivably could have sent their teams to the final.
It was failure on a grand scale, reminiscent of the 1994 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl, when Italy's Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi both missed in the tiebreaking shootout to give Brazil the title. Or the 2004 Euro quarterfinals when David Beckham slipped on the wet grass and sent his penalty kick into the stands in England's loss to Portugal.
Yet it only added to the drama of what was certainly the most exciting 26 hours of soccer since the last World Cup — and the busiest moment in social media history, with Twitter tracking a record 13,684 tweets per second during the Chelsea-Barcelona match, 1,400 more than the previous record for a sporting event set during the final moments of February's Super Bowl.
Messi has scored 63 goals in all competitions this year, the most by a European player in 39 years. Yet unguarded, he bounced his second-half penalty attempt off the crossbar, then watched another shot hit the post, allowing Chelsea to advance after a 2-2 draw. It was the eighth consecutive match in which Chelsea did not concede a goal to Messi, who walked off the field in tears.
A day later Ronaldo — who scored twice in regulation to give him 56 goals this season — was stopped in a penalty-kick shootout eventually won by Bayern Munich, which now has a chance to become the first team to hoist the Champions League trophy in its home stadium since the tournament changed formats in 1993.
And the reverberations of last week's epic semifinals were still being felt days later when Barcelona Coach Pep Guardiola confirmed he would step down after next month's Copa del Rey.
"Four years is an eternity at Barcelona," Guardiola said. "I could not go on. Coming here day after day, over and over again, wears you out. A coach needs energy to be at his best, and the only way to get that back is to take a break and distance myself."
Guardiola guided Barcelona to wins in two of the last three Championship League finals. Barcelona also won in 2006 and Real Madrid captured the 2002 title, giving Spain four of the last 10 championships. But as last week showed, the reign of Spain may be on the wane.
The two semifinal winners certainly aren't lacking for story lines of their own, however.
Seven weeks ago Chelsea, languishing in the middle of the English Premier League standings, sacked coach Andre Villas-Boas and replaced him, on an interim basis, with Italian Roberto Di Matteo. Chelsea has lost only once in 15 matches since the change and is unbeaten in Champions League play under Di Matteo.
The Blues' last win was their most impressive, rallying from two goals down before 99,000 fans in Barcelona, a result the Spanish newspapers dubbed the "Funeral at Camp Nou." And Chelsea did it with just 10 players after captain John Terry once against lost his mind and drew a red card for needlessly kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the back in the first half.
It was the latest in a long series of brainless moves by Terry, who has twice been stripped of the captain's armband with the English national team and is scheduled to stand trial this summer over alleged racial slurs he made to an opponent during a Premier League match in November.
The latest transgression will keep Terry in the grandstands for the May 19 final and Chelsea will also be without fellow defender Branislav Ivanovic and midfielders Raul Meireles and Ramires, who all must serve one-game suspensions after accumulating three bookings in the tournament. Munich will be missing defender Holger Badstuber and midfielders Luiz Gustavo and David Alaba for the same reason, leaving seven starters on the sidelines and leading to calls for UEFA to address the suspension procedure before next year's tournament.
"I feel disappointed that all these players will miss the final through suspension," Di Matteo said. "It would be good if both teams had their whole squads available."
Even at full strength, though, it's hard to imagine Bayern and Chelsea putting together a encore that would top last week's dramatic Spanish imprecision.