A great man once said that the ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
As has been heavily emphasized over the past few days by media and players alike, Chelsea have quite a big challenge coming up with this week. We are up against runaway La Liga leaders, Barcelona. This game probably would have been the match to watch in this round were it not for the PSG-Real Madrid tie.
Chelsea-Barcelona is quite an iconic Champions League fixture and has become a bit of a modern rivalry because of the numerous times these two giants have faced each other. It’s certainly never a drab affair and without exception manages to be the talk of the town. Whether it’s Ronaldinho’s wonder goal, Chelsea’s miracle victory in 2012, a certain referee making “questionable” decisions, or even Rijkaard “referee’s room” incident (“UEFALONA!”), this is very much a rivalry in all its essence. Here’s a 19-year-old Messi speaking about Chelsea-Barcelona back in 2006:
“There are players here who hate Chelsea more than Real Madrid. I never thought I would hear myself say that.
”I also never thought I would see something worse than the Boca and River Plate rivalry or Brazil v Argentina - but this is.”
”We would rather play Arsenal, Manchester United or anyone else than be on the pitch with Chelsea.”
Chelsea played Barcelona no less than four times in 2006 (twice in the Round of 16 in the spring, then twice more in the following edition’s group stage in October), and while we’ve matched wits four more times since, we have a seven-match unbeaten run going against the might Blaugrana. To continue that streak however, is not going to be a simple task.
Before Barcelona travel to Stamford Bridge for the first leg on Tuesday, they did have a league game against Eibar — and for once, it weren’t the English team at a disadvantage, with the a favorable schedule moving Chelsea’s match against Hull City to Friday while Barcelona had to play on Saturday.
While playing against Eibar in La Liga is probably a vastly different proposition to playing against Chelsea in the Champions League, we can perhaps still learn a few things. For example, Barcelona, surprisingly, started with an almost full-strength line up. Chelsea, in comparison, rotated heavily.
Biggest surprise was the inclusion of Andrés Iniesta instead of Philippe Coutinho. Considering Coutinho’s cup-tied status in Champions League, most of us expected Barcelona to start Coutinho and rest their 33-year-old midfield maestro.
However, it is understandable that Barcelona wanted to guarantee their win because if they lost this game, Atlético would’ve likely been just four points behind (they play today). There was also the issue of Eibar’s good form of late. Eibar had lost only one out of their previous ten games (0-1 loss to Atletico), winning six, including a 5-1 drubbing of Sevilla.
As this is almost the identical line-up Barcelona played in their 3-0 win against Real Madrid back in December — Vermaelen starting in place of the then-injury Umtiti the only difference — barring last minute injuries, we can probably expect Barcelona to play this exact 4-4-2 against us as well.
From a tactical point, on paper, a traditional 4-4-2 is a good formation for Chelsea’s 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 to play against, with the three center backs matching up well while still maintaining an extra man in cover. SB Nation’s Ryan Baldi looked at this in detail when he examined the Conte-inspired resurrection of three-defender systems in the Premier League last season.
However, a team of Barcelona’s quality is not likely to be contained by the weaknesses of a formation. This was on full display against Eibar.
After a well-contested first 15 minutes, where Eibar had 4 shots compared to Barcelona’s 0, 54% possesion, around 60 passes each and a massive 8 crosses as compared to Barcelona’s 0, Barcelona suddenly found themselves in the final third and Messi delivered an unbelievable, defence-splitting to Suarez, who rounded the keeper to give Barcelona the lead.
Quality. That’s what our opponents possess. If we want to get anything from this game, we’ll have to be at our best, and not just in defence but also in attack, where we’ll have to take advantage of any and all opportunities. A team like Barcelona will definitely punish us if we don’t punish them.
The rest of the first half was a tightly contested affair. Eibar started the game with a very well organized press but as the half went on, unsurprisingly they grew tired. Not that it mattered too much as Barcelona had managed to pass out of the press perfectly and did not allow it to cause themselves too much trouble. Aside from their goal, Messi managed to hit the post, as he always does. Apparently, Messi has hit the woodwork 16(!) times this season!
Incredible stat from @beINSPORTSUSA just now: Barcelona have hit woodwork 33 times this La Liga season, including 16 by Messi.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 17, 2018
So unlucky, and yet they're unbeaten and running away from everybody.
What’s more ridiculous is the fact that the second top goalscorer in La Liga behind Messi’s 20 goals is Suarez with 16 goals. The man has hit the woodwork as many times as Suarez has scored and still has 20 goals.
Moving on from Suarez-Messi lethal partnership up top, Barcelona’s midfield comprised of the usual Iniesta-Busquets-Paulinho-Rakitic quartet. In attack this looks more of a diamond, with Busquets sitting deeper and Paulinho having a license to roam forward with Rakitic and Iniesta on his either side. Despite a recent slump (which should be exploitable), the faith in Paulinho has been paid back brilliantly by the player, who has been a bit of a revelation since returning to Europe from the Chinese Super League in the summer in a highly questioned (at the time) and laughed-at €40m move. The former Spurs-reject has notched 8 goals and 2 assists in the league, but his contributions extend far beyond just those number. In the Eibar games, for example, Paulinho made a number of runs through the middle which helped stretch the opposition defence and created space for the lethal partnership up front.
Defensively, Barcelona were quite organized on Saturday and remain on just 11 goals conceded in the league all season — somehow that’s not the best in the league as Atlético have only let in 9.
Against Eibar, Barca spent quite a bit of time (relatively speaking) on the back foot but they remained smart and patient rather than try to win the ball back with reckless abandon. However, they do still leave quite a lot of space down the wings. This was exploited by Eibar early on in the game when they made a few diagonal runs outwards and there was confusion among the full backs whether to follow the run or stay narrow and maintain the shape.
To be fair to Eibar, they played exceptionally well (relatively speaking) ... until the 65th minute when Fabian Orellana decided to punch the ball away and got a yellow card for dissent, 7 minutes after he had already received a yellow card for a late foul on Iniesta, leaving Eibar down to 10 men and effectively ending the tie. Eibar put in a valiant effort still, but they were powerless to prevent a second Barcelona goal, with Jordi Alba pouncing on a Messi rebound.
In a game where Eibar out-pressed Barcelona, worked harder, had more possession until they went down to 10 men, more shots, 6 corners to Barcelona’s nil, 2 offside calls as compared to Barcelona’s 6, more blocked shots, 23 crosses as compared to Barcelona’s 1, 10 dribbles each and more aerials won, it was Barcelona who won 2-0 and had Messi hit the woodwork. Make no mistake, Tuesday will as difficult as it gets.
But as the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. We need to discover the clinical Chelsea of last season, which beat United and City 4-0 and 3-1 respectively. We need to be ruthless with our chances, strong in midfield, flawless in defending, and maybe a little lucky, too.