Football can be a funny game sometimes. It only takes a bad result or two for a team to fall into “crisis”, for the narrative to turn, for fates to be sealed, and Antonio Conte seems to be walking down a well-worn path once again. We’ve been here before many times, both with Conte and all his Abramovich Era predecessors. We know how the story ends; the question is when. For Conte, his immediate fate now falls to the feet of Messi and his luxuriously expensive teammates.
Unfortunately, since the draw for the knockout rounds was made, Chelsea’s form has faltered at an alarming rate. At the time, the Blues were sitting in third place, well off runaway leaders Manchester City, but closing in on second place. Now, Chelsea are down to fourth, barely hanging on to next year’s European spot. While Chelsea remain well within striking distance of second place, shocking losses to Bournemouth and Watford as well as disappointing draws against Arsenal and Leicester have left Conte’s side with little momentum or confidence heading into their biggest game of the season. Recent wins against West Brom and Hull City restored a modicum of both, but concerns beyond the results themselves remain.
The form of Tiemoue Bakayoko has spiralled out of control to the point that he’s been taken out of commission without a proper explanation. Fitness concerns have been added to Álvaro Morata’s goalscoring troubles, while even Marcos Alonso has succumbed to the grueling schedule and has missed Chelsea’s last three games. Longer-term issues, such as the contracts (and thus futures) of Hazard, Courtois, or, for that matter, Conte are simmering in the background as well.
And yet as much as things can change in football, things also have a habit of repeating themselves. Back in 2012, Chelsea seemed set for a humiliating outing against a Barcelona side which were even better than the current version. Pep Guardiola was manager at the time, and players like Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta were playing in their prime. It was a daunting task for a team who had replaced Andre Villas Boas in March with his assistant Roberto Di Matteo. The former Chelsea midfielder’s only experience in coaching in pressure situations was for a relegation-threatened West Brom, where he was shown the door only a year prior to landing his new gig. Expectations were minimal.
There’s no need to remind any Chelsea fan of what happened against Barcelona that year, and then in final against Bayern Munich. ‘The greatest night in the history of Chelsea Football Club!’, yelled a suddenly animated Martin Tyler in the TV commentary box. No-one expects a repeat of that destiny-fulfilled run this time around, but a similar glimmer of hope can be attributed to this latest meeting with Messi and co.
All we have to do is believe.
It doesn’t have to be baseless hope either — and if history has taught us anything, it’s that you should write off Chelsea only at your own peril. Eden Hazard looks poised for make his impact truly felt in the Champions League. César Azpilicueta is the definition of consistency and leadership and as a fellow summer 2012-er, he too will be doing his utmost to get Chelsea back on top of Europe. Younger talents like Andreas Christensen and the ever-improving Antonio Rudiger could very well use this opportunity to step up their game, very much like a certain Gary Cahill and David Luiz did six years ago. Thibaut Courtois can always steal a game or two or three, while former Barcelona stars Cesc Fabregas and Pedro will surely look to get one over their friends and former teammates.
It would be a stretch to say that Chelsea have anything but a small chance of creating an upset over both legs. Barca are simply too good, too organised and too talented to allow a monumental slip-up over the course of two games — see: PSG last season — especially against a side that has suffered another hangover from a successful Premier League season the year prior. But before worrying about the opposition, Chelsea need to focus on themselves.
There may be no shame in losing to Barcelona, but the Blues still should be capable of making this a competitive match-up, refuse to buckle under pressure, and cause a couple of worrying moments for the unbeaten La Liga leaders. Conte is one of the more tactically astute managers currently working in the game, and this is his moment to shine. Defeat may be unavoidable, but the manner of how Chelsea go about their business over the next 180 minutes against Barcelona (as well as the back-to-back games against the two Manchester powerhouses in the Premier League) will go a long ways towards determining how the rest of the season’s narrative (and the future beyond) will turn out.