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Should we be happy with Chelsea’s performance against Barcelona?

Or should we hit the panic button?

Chelsea FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, Chelsea nearly pulled off an excellent win against Spanish champions-elect Barcelona, just like we have done in two of the previous three meetings at Stamford Bridge. The visitors hardly created anything all game, and their only goal was an absolute gift from one of the very few errors Chelsea made all night.

On balance of play, Chelsea “deserved” to win, and while there are no points or wins awarded for “should haves”, it is these details that should breed confidence for the second leg and the rest of the season.

Barcelona arrived at Stamford Bridge with a menacing reputation. They already beat Juventus and Real Madrid 3-0 and were undefeated in La Liga. In fact, they had lost just one match all season. Barcelona’s attack also had a formidable look about them. After all, they had scored 62 goals in just 24 games and conceded a mere 11 at the other end. Meanwhile, Chelsea were a Team in Crisis™ who couldn’t even beat the likes of Crystal Palace.

What transpired in the 90 minutes on a Cold Tuesday Night™ at Stamford Bridge couldn’t have been further from the forecast. Barcelona were unimpressive, their lethal strike-force was stifled to mere 2 shots on target and 1 key pass in total while being dispossessed 7 times. In fact, in total the entire Barcelona team had 2 shots on target even though they had 73% possession. By comparison, Chelsea were methodical, efficient and ruthless, even if multiple good opportunities were wasted on the counter-attack.

What’s even more impressive is that Chelsea fielded a line up with just two central midfielders in a 3-4-3 formation. Considering Barcelona play with an Iniesta-Busquets-Rakitic-Paulinho quartet in midfield and Messi drops deeper quite regularly, essentially making it a midfield-five at times, it was not only a bold move but one which was made with the aim to win, not to park the bus.

As a person who prides himself on his tactical understanding, I have to admit, I have no clue how we did what we did. It’s easy to say that Chelsea played a narrow back 5 and defended with numbers and determination. Almost every overpaid pundit will say that but at any point of the match, there were 3 players marking Suarez and Messi, regardless whether they pushed forward, dropped deep or moved wide. Examples:

Fab, Azpi and Kante marking Messi
Messi has moved out wide but instead of Kante, now Moses is marking Messi along Azpi and Fab

It’s this seamless transition in defence which was the highlight of last night’s game. The players had a telepathic connection, if Messi moved from center to the right, Moses immediately started marking him while Kante moved to a more zonal marking role, if Messi dropped deep, Pedro and Hazard started man marking him while others moved to a zonal role. The transition from player to player was quick and no gaps in marking was allowed to develop. It was reminiscent of Italy in Euros.

This transition was so seamless and Chelsea so well prepared that Messi was dispossessed a whopping 6 times, completely only 1 dribble and had 1 key pass in the entire game. Compared to this, Hazard had 4 successful dribbles, 3 key passes and was dispossessed only twice. Outside of the goal, Messi was largely invisible even though Barcelona had 3/4th of the possession and Messi had 94 touches. Suarez’s condition was even worse as he was mostly blocked out wide by the Chelsea defence who were in no mood to give him any space through the middle.

Solid in defence, efficient in attack, Chelsea could’ve scored 3 past Barcelona if not for Barcelona’s best defender of the night and my man of the match: Goalpost. Last night’s performance was akin to the one made by Italy against Spain in the Euro;, if not for our rotten luck, Conte would’ve been once again on the winning side.

However, Chelsea are not Spurs and we don’t believe in just Putting The Pressure™ on other big teams. Thankfully, this tie is far from over. In the second leg, Barcelona will be facing the a conundrum of whether to attack or sit back — they would qualify even at 0-0, but surely that won’t be acceptable to them. There is potential for confusion here, while Chelsea will have the clarity of purpose and a battle-tested mentality either riding high on confidence by beating or drawing with Manchester United and City or looking for one last chance at redemption if we don’t.

Before we face Barcelona, we have two trips to Manchester and one home game against Palace. However, I doubt the plan will change a lot. Both the Manchester clubs are possession hungry teams and playing away means we’ll prepare for them in a similar way as we would for a Barcelona away game and that works in our favour as well.

It will not be easy or simple but it’s more achievable than was previously thought. I was quite disappointed in our mistake last night as well, after all we were so close to winning the game but as I thought about it, I realized that that sorrow wasn’t for the mistake but for the fact that our performance deserved better. Mistakes happen but our execution of Conte’s plan was near perfect. We need to focus on the positives because if we replicate last night’s performance against the Manchester Clubs and in the second leg, we’ll not only be second in PL but we’ll also do the unthinkable, and beat Barcelona once again.

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