A Blue Up North reviews our first leg draw at home to Barcelona.
Tuesday evening saw Chelsea return to Champions League action as they took on regular foes Barcelona in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. The match was The Blues’ third consecutive home match in 3 different competitions and, after comprehensive victories over West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League and Hull City in the FA Cup, there was a growing belief that the Londoners could actually give the Catalan giants a contest.
Given how Barcelona are excelling this season, whilst The Blues have struggled at times for any sort of form, that is quite a bold statement. Manager Ernesto Valverde has turned his Barcelona team into a more complete team in his first season at the helm. Last year under Luis Enrique they lost their league title and never looked capable of lifting The European Cup due to their opposing strengths and weaknesses. Their stunning attacking flair was mirrored by their lack of defensive coherence.
Valverde has managed to maintain their sparkling football going forward, whilst they are looking far more organised at the back. This has resulted in a 7 point lead at the top of La Liga (and a 14 point lead over arch rivals Real Madrid) and billing as one of the favourites for European glory. And this is all despite the club selling Neymar last summer and their big signing, Ousmane Dembele, has hardly played all season due to injuries.
With all this in mind, this tie was always going to the ultimate test on Antonio Conte’s squad. The manager had stated that his players had been preparing for it for quite a while now and that he was having sleepless nights as he contemplated tactical plans on how to knock out the 5 time champions. Well it was all well worth the effort. Even with the manager springing a surprise with his striker less line up, Conte had organised his players superbly.
The players themselves were impeccable as they executed the plans with military style precision. As soon as Barcelona were in possession, the entire Chelsea team immediately moved back into their positions with little fuss. With the back 3 sitting closely together, the 2 wing backs dropping back to act as full backs and a bank of 4 midfielders lying just in front of the defensive 5 proved to be an impossible barrier that even the likes of Messi, Suárez and Iniesta could not penetrate. Barcelona were allowed space at a safe distance away from the home goal with none of Chelsea 9 man defensive unit moving far from their position in order to close them down and potentially offer space to the likes of Messi to exploit.
Then when the home side were in possession they utilised the pace and tenacity of the front 3 of Pedro, Hazard and especially Willian. The least effective with the ball was Pedro, but he regularly moved into key positions and occupied more than 1 defender. Hazard kept possession with consummate ease. His ball retention when either running or stationary had the Spanish defence bamboozled with what he was about to do. However it was Willian who deservedly took all the headlines. The in form Brazilian was 2 posts away from an amazing hat trick that would have stunned not only those in Spain, but all around Europe.
Barcelona are a truly talented side and as usual dominated possession, but it was The Blues who were far more threatening as Conte’s tactical master plan was executed by his focused and determined side. So much so that if Chelsea had won the match 3-0, no one from Barcelona would have had any complaint as that would have been more like a deserved score line.
However, as we’ve seen in past European competitions, the Catalans have a knack of regularly earning something out of nothing. And so it was again as Messi had a 12 yard tap in to finally break his duck against the London side. But it wasn’t necessarily this undeserving equaliser that was the greatest disappointment, after all if Conte’s team repeat this showing in Spain they will have every chance of reaching the quarter finals.
No, the biggest frustration is seeing the immensely talented and gifted Barcelona side resorting to cheap antics in order to try to regain any advantage. Simulation and play acting came to the fore as the tie seemed to be getting away from them and they could not break down the home defence and get back on level terms.
All this has resulted in a stalemate and we go again in 3 weeks time at Camp Nou. Whilst Chelsea have tough trips to both Manchester clubs before the return leg, Barcelona have relatively comfortable La Liga trips and a home match against second placed Atlético Madrid to contend with. If Conte’s side can arrive in Spain unscathed injury wise, I’m sure we will see a very similar game plan to the one we witnessed in the first leg. Hopefully this time the players will be able to execute the plan through to the next round.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue