Blues Don't (Usually) Lose
A decent record against Barcelona, in the Age of Messi, has been as elusive and hard to pin down as the Argentine miracle man himself. And yet somehow Chelsea still haven’t properly lost to the Catalans since 2006, (W2, D6) - unless you’re counting away goals, which UEFA inconveniently do.
The first leg proved this spluttering incarnation of the Blues can still compete with the very best. Tonight, they must produce the performance of the season to upset a Barcelona side that haven't lost at home in 20 games.
Chelsea’s Amigos Buenos
The first leg of this latest episode in the rivalry brought two new-look sides together. Chelsea have invested heavily in Spanish talent, bringing two of Barcelona’s finest into their ranks in the shape of Pedro and Cesc Fabregas, along with regular chorizo botherers Marcos Alonso and Álvaro Morata.
All but Morata started the first leg, putting in a determined performance the old guard of Terry, Lamps and Drogba would have been proud of. Antonio Conte received heaps of praise for his tactics, picking a fancy 3-4-3 which turned into a high-pressing 5-4-1 when the Blaugrana boys had the ball.
Ernie Valverde’s English Style Barça
By contrast, Barcelona have become a bit more old-school since Neymar packed his suitcase and wallet for Paris last summer. With Ousmane Dembélé’s injury restricting him to just 8 games this season, and Phil Coutinho cup-tied, Valverde has done away with the third striker in favour of a 4-4-2, with ex-Spurs hard-nut Paulinho brought into central midfield.
Nippy passing still allows Barça to dominate possession, and they enjoyed a hefty 73% chunk in the first leg. But a lot of their time on the ball was taken up by Ter Stegen in goal, who was the only Barcelona player not harried by the Blues.
Chelsea put in a disciplined team performance, pressing high to rush the Catalans into hasty passes, and marking the easy options. In spite of their Allardesque 4-4-2 formation, Route One will never be the Barcelona way, so Chelsea were able to trap the ball safely in the corners for long periods, especially by targeting full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto.
Chelsea’s Off-Balance Attack
They also had the best of the chances as Will.I.An. bossed the show from the right of midfield, employing the genius masterplan of running faster than Rakitic and Sergio Biscuits. His red-hot form, Pedro’s Nou Camp know-how, and Hazard’s pedigree mean Conte has three near-undroppable inside-forwards on his wonky team sheet.
Against Manchester City, the same system that kept Barcelona quiet went horribly Rigobert Song, with Hazard interpreting the phrase “false 9” to mean “don’t try and win any headers.” The Belgian brat understandably grew frustrated with the thin gruel of long balls served his way, at times throwing his arms in the air like a Sicilian waiter who’s dropped his pizza.
The clear dilemma for Conte is whether to use Morata or Olivier Giroud as a “real 9” - more comfortable with long spells of isolation and back to goal battling - or keep Hazard up there for the sake of his game-changing skills?
On the one hand, Chelsea had a couple of chances from corners before one eventually resulted in Willian’s goal. Whereas both strikers lack the devilishness of your Drogbas and your Costas, Morata or Giroud would automatically be the best headerers of the ball on the pitch.
On the other hand, at the Nou Camp Barcelona’s full-backs bomb forward like naughty kids at the diving pool, leaving all kinds of space behind for a pacy winger to exploit.
In an ideal world, Conte would be replaced tonight for a cameo by Terry Venables or Kevin Keegan, who would take an adventurous 3-2-3-2 to lay siege to the Nou Camp with every attacker available, all at once. Chelsea must score, after all.
It Could Get Messi
Unfortunately for the neutrals, it’s likely to be a far more cagey affair, as Chelsea can’t afford not to park a great big bus in front of Lionel Messi. Having missed Barca's last game to witness the birth of his third son, Messi will be keen to christen the wee man with a goal, just as he has for all his other sprogs.
Somewhat disconcertingly, the Argentine finally has a taste for West London blood, having netted in his 9th attempt against the Blues in the first leg.
Image - Nick Potts/PA
Who's going to step up, show some proper leadership and attempt to knee his spine into next month, a la JT in 2012?
Not Looking Great For England Is It?
This season, England hopefuls Ross Barkley and Danny Drinkwater tried to boost their World Cup credentials by signing for Chelsea, in order to shine in massive games like this.
So... how’s that... how is that going, lads? Barkley’s return from a lengthy hamstring injury has seen him participate in two games since joining the Blues - the Carabao semi-final loss to Arsenal, and the 3-0 home humbling by Bournemouth. Not exactly screaming "TAKE ME TO RUSSIA!" is it?
Danny D in for N’Golo Kante was the only change Conte made between the team that excelled against Barcelona and the team that feebly surrendered at City. To blame the lack of energy at the Etihad on one person would be… pretty convenient, actually, if you’re a manager running out of excuses.
Let me ask you this: if you could choose one Premier League midfielder to man-mark Messi in a must-win game, how far down the list would you put Drinkwater?
Gary Cahill’s relegation to the bench this season gives Gareth Southgate’s scouts yet another reason for an early night on Wednesday.
Hope You Like Hysterical Theme Parks - This One’s An Emotional Rollercoaster
Either way, it’s a big Champions League tie, so even the boring bits will be flooded with emotion. Expect a confusing mixture of amazement, elation, disappointment, jealousy and joy to brew within you.
25 yard screamers, last-minute goals and all kinds of skulduggery have added extra melodrama to this mega-watchable fixture. Here's a potted history of great moments from recent years:
Lampsy's Lob - 2006
2 Wondergoals, 4 Dodgy Penalty Calls & 1 Smelly Red - 2009
The Greatest Chip Ever Cooked - 2012
The Goal-gasm - 2012
In short, it's rarely dull.
See you at the pub later.
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