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Chelsea are back

After a few topsy-turvy weeks, it seems as if the old Chelsea are finally back

Chelsea FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images,

As Willian’s right-footed shot shook the back of the Barcelona goal, Stamford Bridge was rocking. Chelsea had taken the lead against the almighty Catalonians, and their opponents looked stumped when asked to come up with a response. Antonio Conte celebrated as wildly as he did when Michy Batshuayi’s finish against West Brom handed his side the Premier League title last May. And why wouldn’t he? The Italian had drawn up the perfect gameplan for this contest, frustrating his opponents to no end. It was a goal which would have sent Chelsea to the Camp Nou with a valuable 1-0 lead in three weeks’ time, if only a stray pass from Andreas Christensen hadn’t ended up at the feet of Andreas Iniesta. Chelsea were so close and yet so far.

Football can be a cruel game, and we were reminded of that last night. It’s not ofen you see a team dominate a game when they own just 32% of the possession, but the gameplan called for Chelsea to cede the ball to Barcelona in order to do so. Conte knew that with N’Golo Kante in midfield, he could stifle the passing lanes to the forwards of Luis Suarez and Leo Messi, while the right hand side of Pedro, Victor Moses and Cesar Azpilicueta would make it difficult for Jordi Alba and Iniesta to link up on their usual overlapping runs. Barca played right into Conte’s hands, and Chelsea were so close to pulling off the unthinkable until that harsh 75th minute blow.

Christensen played the ball across the face of his own goal, his team-mates perhaps a little slack due to the tiring effort they had put in over the course of the game, and Iniesta picked up the pieces, laying it on a plate for a all-too-happy Messi to convert his first real chance of the game. Thibaut Courtois jumped a little early, if only he had waited a second later and it may have been a comfortable save, but hindsight is 20/20. Messi slotted home his first goal in nine appearances versus Chelsea, and Barca are suddenly in the driving seat. It was undeserved, considering how lacklustre the La Liga leaders looked for the majority of the game. If Plan A (getting it to Messi and letting him do the work) wasn’t working, they didn’t seem to have a back-up. And Plan A, despite the media’s post-game adoration of the Argentine, was far from successful.

Messi had a tough night, losing possession 7 times, the most wasteful he’s been since the Champions League encounter with Sporting Lisbon back in September. On that night, Suarez and Sergi Roberto had conceded the ball 5 times as Barcelona had spread the ball around during their 1-0 victory. Last night, however, was different. The closest player to Messi in terms of carelessness was Suarez, again, as he lost the ball 3 times, but that there was a distinct gap between both is an example of Barcelona’s gameplan. Valverde planned for Messi to be at the core of everything his side would do offensively, but Conte, one of the more tactically astute managers around, was wise to it and centred his gameplan around Barca’s number 10.

Trying to hatch up a plan where you limit the effectiveness of the “greatest player in the world” is much easier said than done, although Conte, and his players, had almost executed it to perfection. Messi had completed just 5 dribbles, only one inside the opposition box, and his lone attempt on goal was when he tapped-in the equaliser. Despite man-marking being a popular tactic when it comes to planning for ways to stop Messi, Conte took a page out of his former club’s book on how to neutralise the 30-year-old. Last year, Juventus stymied Messi by constantly switching their personnel onto him depending on where he was on the field. Last night, Conte used a similar tactic. When in midfield it was Cesc Fabregas who was usually tasked with standing up to Messi, and as he got deeper on the pitch, Kante was chosen to defend the Argentinian. If Messi got further forward, after playing a quick one-two or making a run in behind the defence, Kante was instructed to stay around the penalty box and allow Azpilicueta to take on the responsibility of marking Messi. At one stage, even Eden Hazard had found himself marking his dribbling counterpart. It’s too tiring, too idealistic to assume one player can follow Messi around for 90 minutes and prevent him from hurting you. It takes a team effort to affect his game, and Conte deserves a ton of credit for how he set his side up to defend against Barca’s star man.

Chelsea had almost made him look human, and the back pages should have been full of praise for the Blues defence making the five-time Ballon d’Or-winner look normal. And even though that goal has switched momentum to Barcelona, it shouldn’t take away from the phenomenal performance from the home side.

Conte raised some eyebrows when he opted for the 3-4-3 formation over his preferred 3-5-2, considering he chose to use the latter against the likes of Leicester. In truth, when Barcelona were in possession it had switched more to a 4-5-1 with Pedro and Willian dropping deep to cover any space that the opposition might exploit. The inclusion of both wingers was a smart move. Conte realised the pace and energy of both players would prove to be more valuable than the physical, agrressive style that Danny Drinkwater could provide. Both Pedro and Willian got in the faces of the Barca players, pushed them high and nipped away at their heels from time to time, the former even dispossesing his former teammate Messi at one stage. Willian, meanwhile, was even better offensively, completing 8 dribbles and looking like Chelsea’s more dangerous asset going forward. That says a lot when you share the pitch with Eden Hazard, but for all his detractors and critics, the Brazilian attacker played immensely, capping off his performance with a well-deserved goal.

Kante also answered his faultfinders, who wondered if the Champions League was a step too far for the former Leicester man. It was a silly argument which was made to look even more foolish as the night wore on, with Kante rendering the majority of Messi’s play redundant. He finished the match with 4 interceptions and a clearance as well as a couple of blocks in a typical Kante display. Behind him, Azpilicueta led by example for his younger comrades in Chelsea’s defence, with 6 interceptions and 3 clearances. It was a fine performance from a player who has been the epitome of consistency since his arrival six years ago.

As much as it may be a bitter feeling for the side to come away from the tense contest with just a draw, and a costly one at that considering Barcelona now have an all-important away goal, there weren’t many people who believed Chelsea could hang with the best that Europe has to offer. It’s a nice reminder for the fans, who have endured a much different season compared to the joy-filled one of last year, that their club are able to match the absurdly and star-fulfilled talent of Barca. Ultimately, it was a sloppy mistake from the usually-reliable Christensen which led to a glorious night at Stamford Bridge turning into a what-if moment, but the young centre-back was exceptional in the biggest match of his career, and looked like he belonged in these big moments.

Chelsea now have two mouth-watering matches in Manchester to deal with as the race for the top four heats up before the return leg at the Camp Nou takes place, but last night’s performance is a reminder of just how good this side can be when clicking on all cylinders. After a few topsy-turvy weeks, it seems as if the old Chelsea are finally back.

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