Many anticipated Barcelona to go all Watford (or Bournemouth) on Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League’s Round of 16. Instead, what took place was one of Chelsea’s best performances of the season, in which they collectively rose to the task at hand and were all set for a famous victory before the visitors capitalized on a single mistake. That’s what champions do, is the commonly heard cliche, and certainly Barcelona will walk away with the La Liga title this season. Whether they’ll finish the job against Chelsea next month the Camp Nou however remains to be seen.
Heading into the most difficult challenge of the season, options for Chelsea were a bit scarce. With Tiemoué Bakayoko sidelined due to injury (and poor form) and Danny Drinkwater yet to show himself a truly valuable asset to the team, Conte only had Cesc Fàbregas as an option to sit next to the ever-present N’Golo Kanté. With the rest of the defence and midfield falling into place as usual, Conte surprised everyone by choosing to go with Eden Hazard as a false-nine instead of using one of Álvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud as a true-nine.
In the Barça camp, Ernesto Valverde made no changes from the lineup employed against Eibar last weekend. The 4-4-2 headlined by Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi has been their go-to tactic in a season where they have lost only three official games — one if you ignore the glorified two-legged friendly that is the Spanish
Community Shield Super Cup.
Battling for possession against Barcelona, even with home advantage, would be futile. Conte more than understood that and let Barcelona have almost the entire pitch to themselves by setting Chelsea deep and allowing the visitors plenty of inert time on the ball to practice their fine tippy-tappy tradition of ball retention. One difference from Barcelona sides of the past however was their reluctance to press high, though Chelsea didn’t bother building from the back too often, looking for quick counter-attacks instead.
Both teams can point to the stats for proof that their approach worked. Barça maintained over 70 per cent possession with four times as passes than Chelsea. Chelsea meanwhile created better scoring opportunities and outshot the visitors 11-to-7 (6-to-3 in the first half). Before the gift-wrapped equalizer for Messi, which was worth about 0.6 xG, Chelsea were ahead of Barcelona in that metric as well despite settling for several long shots due to the all-smalls lineup that could not compete with Barcelona in the six-yard box.
xG map for Chelsea - Barcelona. A fantastic defensive performance by Chelsea, looked like Willian had stolen it... then they chunked it all over the place. pic.twitter.com/K9SvCxP6f9— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) February 20, 2018
The worries over Conte’s choice for the starting front trio dissipated once they started clicking. Willian was hellbent on proving his mettle, while Eden attracted the attention of almost all Barça defenders whenever he touched the ball. Pedro, as in recent good performances, sacrificed some of his attacking desires to become more of a third midfielder, dropping deep to help out Kanté and Fàbregas, the former of whom shook off a sluggish start to showcase some of his abilities on the biggest stage yet.
After 30 minutes of Chelsea working hard to clog passing lanes and keep tightly organized, the Blues came out of their shell and started driving forward and pressing up. That almost worked instantly as a missed pass from midfielder Paulinho was swept up to Willian, who played the ball to Eden. On the return, the Brazilian made midfielder Sergio Busquets a fool of himself with a quick flick to the right — classic Willian! — and with the new-found space, unleashed a great shot from the edge of the box that already had goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen resigned to picking the ball out of the back of his net.
Alas, the shot was an inch too far to the right, and the upright said no with a loud ping.
Willian’s hit made momentum completely shift to Chelsea.
A few minutes later he was at it again, fooling Busquets once again, but this time hitting the other upright, just to keep things interesting.
All Willian was missing now, the joke went, was the crossbar and then like the original World Cup trophy (The Jules Rimet Trophy), he could’ve taken the net home with him.
If Willian can hit the crossbar now, he gets to take the woodwork home with him.— Dan Levene (@danlevene) February 20, 2018
All in all, Chelsea were playing way above expectations.
Barcelona’s troubles in trying to dismantle Fortress Stamford Bridge saw Messi dropping deeper at the beginning of the second half. With that, the Catalans were slightly less toothless than in the first but still nowhere near having any sort of dangerous bite, and that despite Luis Suárez playing at center forward.
As the first-half script continued to unfold in the second as well, the role of Ter Stegen’s uprights was replaced by a Willian knee slide celebration.
Fàbregas won a corner after settling for a long shot and played it short to Eden Hazard. Barcelona sagged back and having not learned their lesson from the first half, left Willian in acres of space at the top. Hazard eventually found the Brazilian, who drew in Busquets to complete his hat-trick of beating him with the same move before guiding a perfectly curling low effort around Umtiti and Rüdiger and into the back of the net.
Chelsea’s organisation, team spirit, commitment, character finally earned their well deserved reward. All we needed to do now in the final half-hour was to keep a clean sheet. That’s harder said than done however.
Barça boss Valverde was quick to react to falling behind by taking off Paulinho, who did not have a good game today, to say the least, and introduce the far more dynamic Aleix Vidal as a right-back with Sergi Roberto shifting to midfield. The idea was to add more pace into Barcelona’s tired and aging legs. Instead, it were Chelsea driving down the other way with more regularity and confidence. With just a bit of luck and perhaps a couple better decisions, Willian alone could’ve collected two assists. Alas, Chelsea wasted all our counters, in a throwback to last season’s foibles in this regard.
Unfortunately, as it often happens, the wasted opportunities came back to cost us. And all it took was one error. One lapse of concentration. One very bad decision. Or two or three, depending on just how you want to apportion the blame.
Christensen misplaced only two passes all game. One went sliced off his foot and went out for a needless corner in the first-half. The other was played to no one in particular, evading both Cesc Fàbregas, who was on his heels, and César Azpilicueta, who decided to dive in after it. Three poor choices in the span of a second. Could’ve used one from Andres Iniesta as well, but he stayed cool, calm, and collected and instead of settling for a poor-angle shot, picked out Messi with a reverse ball, who beat a wrong-footed Courtois with ease.
Twelve years and nine games it had taken for the greatest ever player to score on Chelsea.
The remaining fifteen minutes saw more of the same unfold as the previous 75, as Chelsea quickly recovered from the setback to continue to pose danger on the counter and Barcelona continued to hog the ball. Eventually, the visitors were happy to take the 1-1 back home, and no even the introduction of a proper center forward in Álvaro Morata was capable of making the additional difference needed for the home team.
So, at half-time, we’re all even at 1, but Barcelona have the crucial away goal. Chelsea will need to score in the Camp Nou in a few weeks. Another 2-2 then?
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