LONDON (AFP) - Guus Hiddink admitted he could understand why his players had cried 'conspiracy' after a string of controversial refereeing decisions denied Chelsea a place in the Champions League final.
Andres Iniesta's stoppage-time equaliser earned Barcelona a scarcely-deserved 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening and sent the Catalans into a final meeting with Manchester United on the away goals rule.
Hiddink admitted his side, who had performed with superb discipline in the goalless first leg and gone ahead in the tie through a stunning Michael Essien strike, had contributed to their own downfall by failing to take the chances they had to kill the match.
But that did not stop him from branding the performance of Norwegian official Tom Henning Ovrebo - who turned down a string of strong penalty appeals by Chelsea - as the worst he had seen in his long coaching career.
"Of course, players make many mistakes, coaches make many mistakes and referees can make mistakes. Okay, so it happens. It's all in the game. But when you see two, three or four situations waved away, then, yes, it is the worst I have seen."
The Dutchman acknowledged Chelsea should have capitalised on the extent to which they dominated Wednesday's match, with Iniesta's late, late strike the first shot the visitors had got on target all night.
"It is quite a disappointment that we did not finish it," Hiddink said. "We can be critical of that. But it was the overall feeling of being robbed, of an injustice. That it why it was so hot and angry in the dressing room. I could fully understand the feeling of the players."
Chelsea might have had as many as four penalties and some of the players were quick to link the referee's performance to a belief that UEFA did not want another all-English final in the wake of last year's dull stalemate between the Londoners and Manchester United.
Hiddink however distanced himself from such theories. "Conspiracy is a very tough word and, if there is, you have to prove it," he said.
"Obviously there is a lot written and said prior to this game. I can only mention what I see. I cannot say whether UEFA wouldn't like another English final."
Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola acknowledged Chelsea may have had grounds for complaint but claimed the Londoners also contributed to their own downfall by attempting to sit on their lead.
"I can understand that Chelsea can be disappointed about the performance of the referee," Guardiola said. "I did not see the penalties they say there were but it is possible that there were.
"You have to give us credit though. We tried to win the game, we tried to take the ball and create chances. We did not create so much but I expected Chelsea to create a little bit more pressure."
Barcelona looked dead and buried when Eric Abidal was sent off (another mistake by the referee) with almost 25 minutes left, but Guardiola never lost faith.
"We kept going and we were persistent to the end," he said. "Don't forget we played 25 minutes ten against 11 and Chelsea stayed back. It was difficult enough 11 against 11 so we are so happy to have scored."
Despite Guardiola's positive spin, Barca did little in either leg of the semi-final to suggest they are capable of preventing Manchester United from becoming the first side to retain the European Cup since the introduction of the Champions League format.
Chelsea thoroughly deserved the lead they established with a goal that breathtakingly demonstrated that the Catalans do not enjoy a monopoly on technical excellence.
Frank Lampard's attempted chip was deflected by Yaya Toure into Essien's path and, from just beyond the arc on the edge of the penalty area, the Ghanaian midfielder unleashed a left-foot volley that rattled into the net off the underside of the bar.
Barcelona, in contrast, failed to muster a shot on target until Iniesta's late strike and Chelsea might have won at a canter with a different official.
Daniel Alves was fortunate not to concede a first-half penalty in a wrestling match with Florent Malouda that started outside but continued into the area.
Abidal's tug on Didier Drogba's shirt might have earned a spot-kick soon afterwards and handballs by Gerard Pique and Samuel Eto'o also went unpunished after the break.
But it was also true that Drogba twice failed to find the net when he had only Victor Valdes to beat and Hiddink acknowledged that Chelsea had to look at themselves with the same scrutiny they applied to the referee.
"Outside of the penalties we had two or three chances in open play which we should have taken," Hiddink said. "Then we would not have had all this fuss about the penalties."