In case you’ve been living under a rock, here’s your hourly reminder that Chelsea will be facing old nemesis Barcelona on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge in the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16 knockout tie. And in case you’ve been living under said rock even longer, here’s your other reminder that Chelsea are the underdogs in this matchup, even in just the first leg at home, and will have to be at their most efficient and effective best to beat this formidable edition of the Blaugrana, who are unbeaten in La Liga this season.
Chelsea themselves may have found a little purple patch lately as well, winning consecutive games against West Brom and Hull City, but that’s hardly anything to get anyone too carried away, especially Antonio Conte. To point out the obvious, Barca are a slightly more difficult challenge than West Brom, rock bottom of the Premier League, and (the second string of) Hull City who are fighting relegation in the Championship.
“On one hand you know this team is one of the best in the world – maybe they are favourites to win this competition. On the other hand we must be excited because we have a great opportunity to play a massive game against a really strong team and to show which is our level.
“For sure we are talking about one of the best teams in the world. We have to try to, I repeat, have the perfect game, the perfect game to try to make the best decisions. For this type of team, because this is a different opponent, they have fantastic characteristics with the ball. But they can have weaknesses without the ball and we have to try and exploit this.”
-Antonio Conte; source: Guardian
Obviously we shouldn’t give up just because Barca are favored; Conte certainly won’t be and has apparently been working on a gameplan for over a month now. We won’t have to wait too long now to see what weakness Conte will look to exploit; might it be the same as Fàbregas suggests.
“They try to put the first pressure very, very high – (they) always work towards the ball. If we can (get) past this first phase of their pressure, then we have the content to do that, and not put ourselves under too much pressure, then I think we can hurt them because they will leave a lot of spaces at the back.
”Hopefully we can give a good image of what we can do and do a good performance.”
-Cesc Fàbregas; source: Guardian
Whenever Barcelona are mentioned, their beautiful play on the ball is emphasized so much that one would think that’s all that they do. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. From the days of Rijkaard to Pep to even Enrique and now on to Valverde, Barcelona players work extremely hard without the ball. It may not be the conventional method of working hard and contributing to defence — i.e. tracking back — but they do press aggressively.
| Barça's defensive record this season:— FC Barcelona (@BarcaUniversal) February 15, 2018
✔ 26 Cleansheets
19 Goals conceded
Mats Ter ''Wall'' Stegen. pic.twitter.com/Ze4iJt5EEK
Under Valverde, the pressing hasn’t been as high as it used to be, at least for the away games as Barcelona’s 3-0 win against Real Madrid in December and their 2-0 win against Eibar on Saturday have shown. In those games, Barcelona were content to let their opposition have the ball in areas of relatively lesser threat but as soon as the opposition reached anywhere near the final third, Barcelona pressed quickly and efficiently to recover the ball and disarm any and all threats.
This emphasis on working hard for the team couldn’t have been clearer when Valverde was asked to explain his decision to start Iniesta instead of a cup-tied Coutinho (who isn’t as defensively solid as Iniesta) just 3 days before the Chelsea fixture.
“I think it was best for my team to try to win. Last week Coutinho started, Iniesta didn’t, so this week Iniesta started. It’s true that on Tuesday we have another match but for me the most important thing was this match. On Tuesday, let’s see, I know Coutinho cannot play, but we will do something.”
-Ernesto Valverde; source: Goal
Less than 36 hours to go...
0.68 - Juventus have conceded an average of just 0.68 goals per game in all competitions this season (23 in 34 games); only Barcelona (0.49) & Atlético Madrid (0.54) have a better record among the teams within the big five leagues. Formidable. pic.twitter.com/K46VHm9o2d— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 13, 2018