A Blue Up North previews our Champions League home leg against Barcelona.
On Tuesday evening Chelsea return to Champions League action with their first leg match at Stamford Bridge against regular European foes Barcelona. It is a match up that brings back such extremely contrasting emotions for all Blues fans – from the lows of Tom Henning Ovrebo, who’s dreadful refereeing performance during our semi final elimination in 2009 and the heavy 5-1 defeat at Camp Nou in 2000, to the highs of The Blues taking a 3-0 lead inside the first 38 minutes of the tie in 2000 and that unforgettable night in 2012 that still brings tears of joy whenever I reminisce.
Although the record between the sides is level at 5 wins each and with 5 draws, Chelsea are actually unbeaten in their last seven Champions League games against the Spanish giants. There was a time during the 2000’s when the Catalans nearly dispensed with their Tiki-Taka style in order to copy a more robust and powerful style of football displayed by the Chelsea sides they came up against.
After 2 consecutive comfortable victories and with all the media gossip regarding Antonio Conte’s imminent departure from the club finally going quiet, Chelsea are now in a stronger position heading into this tie. First team regulars Thibaut Courtois, Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, N’Golo Kante and Eden Hazard were all given full rests from the FA Cup win over Hull City last Friday, while the recent form of Antonio Rudiger, Cesc Fabregas, Davide Zappacosta, Willian and Olivier Giroud could well see all of them given starts.
Conte very much has selection issues. With Alvaro Morata back playing, does the manager slot the ex Real Madrid striker back into his starting XI or does he keep with the more robust Giroud who will be a more physical handful for the Barcelona defence. Does the manager stick with the 3-4-3 or opt for the extra midfielder in a 3-5-2. If the former, will Willian or Pedro play alongside Hazard and the striker. If the latter, who will join Kante and Fabregas in the central positions. Conte will be pleased that he has such a list of dilemmas to deal with.
There is also good news for the Italian on the left flank. Marcos Alonso could be recalled as he returns to full fitness. With not only this massive tie to contend with, but also back to back Premier League away trips in Manchester coming up, the Chelsea manager will be relishing having so many options, especially after recent matches where it was more a case of the fittest XI started. Conte has stated that his side have been preparing for the Barcelona ties for a month now and a nearly full squad availability will have helped those preparations.
Barcelona themselves are enjoying another successful season. Despite the departure of Neymar to Paris last summer, the Catalan giants have restructured and, if anything, improved. Manager Ernesto Valverde has them playing a 4-4-2 formation with just Messi and Suarez up front. This has allowed both full backs, especially Jordi Alba on the left, to make regular forays into attacking positions with devastating effect. Whoever out of Moses or Zappacosta plays on Chelsea’s right must be ready as Alba in particular loves to find the space left now that Barcelona do not play with wide strikers.
Along with the obvious Barcelona strength of long periods of quality possession, the other main reason for their 17 point lead at the top of La Liga is their improved defence under Valverde. French centre back Samuel Umtiti has become a rock that most waves of attacks come crashing against. With his presence, Barcelona have only conceded 11 goals in 24 league matches this season. They have kept 7 clean sheets in their past 10 matches. In their six Champions League group ties, they conceded only once. Umtiti’s performances have resulted in former regular Javier Mascherano leaving the club last month with a money move to China.
So make no mistake, The Blues have their work cut out to get past this very impressive Barcelona side. In 6 previous visits to Stamford Bridge, the away side have only won once and lost 4 times whilst never keeping a clean sheet. Famously, Lionel Messi has never scored against Chelsea in the 8 appearances but this tie is possibly Barcelona’s and Messi’s best opportunity to rectify these statistics.
However big European nights under the floodlights at Stamford Bridge are something special. With a passionate home support roaring their side on and each of the players in blue playing to the best of their ability, a home victory is within their grasp. A strong focused defensive performance coupled with a clinical showing in front of goal and The Blues could well be heading out to Spain with a real belief they can reach the quarter finals of the Champions League once again.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue