A Blue Up North reviews Chelsea’s defeat in Camp Nou.
Wednesday evening saw Chelsea travel to Barcelona for their second leg of the Champions League round of 16. Although the scores were level at 1-1, it was always thought that Barcelona’s late equaliser at Stamford Bridge could be crucial, whether in the final aggregate score or just as a psychological boost to the Catalans.
And it was the latter that prevailed straight from the kick off. Within 3 minutes Lionel Messi was through and nutmegged Thibaut Courtois from a narrow angle. The home nerves were eased but all Chelsea hearts sank with a realisation that their hopes of qualifying for the quarter finals were diminishing and that we may even be on the ending of a hiding.
However, the players rallied and put in a confidence building performance away at possibly the best team in the world containing 2 of the best players around.
Antonio Conte picked what most Chelsea fans believe is our strongest line up at the moment, with Olivier Giroud keeping his place as the central target for their attacks, whilst Cesc Fabregas lined up alongside N’Golo Kante in central midfield and Antonio Rudiger returned in defence.
For Ernesto Valverde, the midfield genius that is Andreas Iniesta was past fit enough to start after his hamstring injury, while summer signing Ousmane Dembélé, who missed the first leg, started on the right.
The Catalans love to play a possession driven style of football, regularly notching up over 70 or even 80 per cent with their “tika taka”. Even in the first leg they registered 73% possession. However in Camp Nou, the hosts officially had what is for them a very lowly 56%. It felt they had had even less than that.
A statistic that is more relevant but is always drowned out by “overall possession” is possession in the attacking third of the pitch. This stat will have been hugely in Chelsea’s favour as they attacked regularly throughout the entire match.
However, the score line did not reflect this and that was one of the keys to why it is Barcelona in the quarter final draw. The Catalans’ ability to scythe their way through and score 3 goals from relatively few attacks was quite shocking from a Chelsea stand point. Whilst The Blues were regularly in possession attacking into the final third but they ended with nothing to show for it. A combination of poor balls into the box and the play breaking down before an attempt was made was truly frustrating.
The Chelsea defence were too weak in the challenge (if they did even bother to make challenge at all), so Messi and Dembélé were devastating with their pacy dribbling. To make matters easier for Messi in particular, Thibaut Courtois should not allow 2 shots aimed between his feet slip through. The Argentinian was named man of the match for his 2 quality goals, but both should have been saved. It was an award that was even more ironic as his general play was poor, with him regularly losing possession. However, as he did in the first leg, his only positive contributions to the match were to increase the score sheet with 3 goals and 1 assist in total.
For me the true star of the show was playing in blue. N’Golo Kante was truly immense, especially in the second half. Outnumbered in central midfield and with the indifferent tackling skills of Fabregas as assistance, Kante controlled most of the match by himself. He won 12 duels, including 7 clean tackles and made 3 interceptions whilst defending. Not only that, he has now also become a driving force in pushing The Blues forward. He registered 100% dribble success rate, created 3 chances and completed 95% of all his passes. The little maestro was everywhere.
Giroud tried his best to win all of his duels against 2 tough centre backs, but he has a far too “nice” a streak about him. An aerial duel he won on the half way line allowed Hazard to attack down the left, but when the Belgian needed to cross the ball the Frenchman was still making sure his injury faking opponent was Ok and 30 yards behind play. What the striker is missing is that ruthless desperation to be scoring the goal from the middle of the penalty box after keeping the attack going from the initial through ball to him. With that desire he could have had at least 2 or 3 more excellent attempts on goal.
Both Hazard and Willian were a constant thorn in Barcelona’s side. Their pace and dribbling regularly tore through the home midfield but they both tried to be too clever and intricate near the penalty box and lost possession before a goal attempt was made.
The assist machine that is Cesc Fabregas seemed to have his passing radar misaligned and struggled to made the defence splitting pass he regularly contributes and, with Victor Moses losing possession too often on the right flank, 2 further avenues of Chelsea attacks were not as prolific as their attacking possession should have been.
Marcos Alonso did manage to link up with Hazard and constantly pressed Dembélé into defensive duties. It was also the Spaniard’s efforts to continue running forward and be in a central striker’s position awaiting a cross that showed Conte’s desire that Chelsea would take the match to their illustrious hosts. It did assist in Alonso being out of his defensive position for Dembélé’s goal, but Alonso was trying to cover 2 people’s positions.
However it was in the more dirty arts of the game that the match was men against boys. The Barcelona players were willing to gain possession by whatever means they could, either by fair play or by falling over and being awarded unjustified free kicks. The Chelsea players would stay on their feet, not moan when free kicks were taken 15 yards out of position and worried about opposing player’s well being whilst they rolled around feigning injury.
The Chelsea team have become too nice. I can not imagine a single one of them walking past Messi after his first goal on 3 minutes and, with a steely stare, whispering something like “Next time you attempt that I’ll put you in hospital”. The 2012 side would have and probably did. Yes, John Terry took it too far in that match and was sent off, but the likes of Cech, Ashley Cole, Luiz, Cahill, Lampard, Ramirez and Drogba were all tough players who went into these matches as men going into battle against a tough opposition.
The sooner Conte can reinstall the steely determination back into the players the better. After all they showed such mentality in winning the Premier League last season.
Written by Jon Ellis. Follow him on Twitter @ClitheroeBlue