From the moment Chelsea’s Champions League draw with Barcelona in the competition’s round of 16 was announced, no one gave us a chance of making it past the Catalans. Therefore, we were more than eager to prove those naysayers wrong.
Good work was done in the first leg, with Chelsea going as far as holding what would have been a great 1-0 win from a Willian goal. But the Spaniards, filled with a squad of star players well experienced in winning trophies, pulled one back to carry home a 1-1 draw.
Thus the Blues, who were quite close to playing a perfect game in their meeting with Barça at the Bridge, were ought to do so in the return leg.
Unfortunately, they failed.
Following up on all the talks about how Chelsea would have to cope with Barça’s relentlessness at their home ground, manager Antonio Conte got in sync with the public and picked up what many would argue to be our best lineup available. In such, gone were the ways of having Eden Hazard acting as a false-nine for the employment of Olivier Giroud as a proper striker to spearhead our attacking efforts.
Change also took place in Barça’s camp, as the home advantage had boss Ernesto Valverde betting on a more offensive approach. Thus instead of lining up on the 4-4-2 that got them a 1-1 draw at the Bridge, they went with a 4-3-3 lead by the attacking line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembélé, the latter a substitute to Brazilian midfielder Paulinho. And as expected, Andrés Iniesta confirmed his “miraculous” recovery from a hamstring injury picked up less than two weeks by featuring in Barcelona’s starting eleven.
Kickoff already had Barça with the ball in the most comfortable for them: their feet. In less than 3 minutes of play, Barcelona registered 45 touches on the ball to Chelsea’s 2, both of them coming from the unlucky bounces that ultimately fell onto Suárez, who then gave the ball to Messi just so he could find his second goal of the tie — and career — versus Chelsea.
The “perfect game” was rightly thrown out of the window by another individual mistake, this time made by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. And any hopes of keeping a tight score and pouncing on the counter using Giroud’s skills as reference for the attacks were also gone and instead, Chelsea would have to take the initiative.
By advancing their lines and starting to press Barcelona high up the pitch, Chelsea started to take hold of the game. The Catalans would try to get the ball on the ground and return it to their grasp but the work of N’Golo Kanté sweeping them off was just too much for them to bare.
In little to no time, the visitors started to create chances. Many times Barcelona’s only way to stop our moves down the flanks were with fouls, which is all we had been asking for. And we apparently came well prepared for them, as traditional free kicks chipped to the area looking for one of our men to slot it past the goalkeeper made way to unorthodox set piece routines.
Those created some of our best chances in the game, with Barcelona centre-backs Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Piqué working hard to block these attempts. If the ball was not readily recovered in Barça’s half, we would simply drop back and cushion whatever came our way, counting on Kanté’s incessant job and Willian’s ball-carrying tasks to bring us back in motion.
It was all a promising, but still strange sight to see us dominating Barcelona at their home turf. A goal felt on the verge of being scored by the Blues as we entered minute 20 with some positive play showed by Chelsea.
But then, all this good work was undone.
A shot from Eden was met with another block from Umtiti. The ball fell to defender Andreas Christensen, who played it to midfielder Cesc Fàbregas. However, neither Cesc nor Christensen counted on a surprise appearance from Messi to steal the ball from his former club teammate. The Argentinian swiftly avoided Christensen’s attempted tackle, sliced past Azpilicueta with another dribble and then set up youngster Dembélé, who had all the time in the world to adjust himself for a powerful shot towards Courtois’ goal.
In one move, Barcelona took all of Chelsea’s momentum-building rhythm away. For the next 15 minutes, most of the Blues’ players would become passers-by to Barça’s flow in their passing game. Only a few members of the starting eleven, mostly Kanté and Willian, would dare attempt doing anything beyond retaining shape in the 5-4-1 set-up and lackadaisically close down and press the Catalans when they were near our defensive third.
With all the insistence from the duo, some other players started to join in the effort. Especially left wing-back Marcos Alonso, who got very close to having a 2012 Ramires at Camp Nou moment on a free kick that almost curved its way out of Barça goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s range and into the goal at the last minute of the half.
Marcos Alonso's well-struck free kick has the right pace but its trajectory is just a little off target as it hits the corner of the upright and bounces away. Close. 0-2. #CFC pic.twitter.com/1BdBbE1Q8E— Chelsea GIFs (@ChelseaGIFs) March 14, 2018
Whereas Barça took hold of the game on the first half kickoff, it was time for Chelsea to do so in the second one. Although the hosts almost scored a third goal early into the term thanks to a pass from Courtois that went to Suárez instead of one of his teammates — with the ensuing shot saved by the Belgian keeper — Chelsea were back at it with some good offensive play.
On the back of his good display to close out the first half, Alonso became one of our main weapons on attacks. The defender was a constant presence near Barça’s 18-yard old, occupying the left flank of the area and cutting in from the position to take shots at their goal. It went as far as having a potential penalty call on him completely dismissed by referee Damir Skomina early into the second half.
Similar to the first 45 minutes, Chelsea found it quite effective to attack Barça on the wings. Through their full-backs Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto being pushed back by our wing-backs, and the narrowness of a midfield made up with Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets, the wide areas were ready to be exploited.
However, Barça boss Valverde was not too pleased with the sighting of his team being out-played and out-possessed at home. Thus changes were made in their camp, first out of tactical volition with Iniesta subbed off for Paulinho. And then André Gomes, whose sincere interview on his struggles at Camp Nou made the entire stadium cheer on his entrance in place of an injured Busquets.
The return to 4-4-2 gave Barça a bit more stability, although Chelsea were still ahead with their offensive play. Still, upset was set to take place once again.
Another round of good work, straight to the gutter. A horrid pass from Chelsea captain-in-charge Azpilicueta towards Willian was intercepted by Alba, who then played it onto Suárez. The Uruguayan striker, who has yet to net a single goal in the Champions League this season, gave the chance for Messi to score his second game of the game. And he duly did so.
And to add insult to injury, this was Messi’s 100th goal of his career in the competition. Yikes.
Minutes after their third score, more changes took place. This time, there was shifts on both sides of the pitch with Valverde taking off Dembélé, who had been anonymous throughout the second half, for right midfielder Aleix Vidal. Conte answered with two like-for-like substitutions, introducing Davide Zappacosta and Álvaro Morata in place of Victor Moses and Olivier Giroud respectively.
At first, the changes managed to keep Chelsea’s good work on pressing still afloat. But this lasted only a few minutes from their entrances as Barça started what we could call “offensive ball wasting”, doing something similar to City by exchanging passes sideways in midfield and attacking positions but not being too keen on making advances to avoid risking the loss of possession.
Nevertheless, Chelsea were still able to find some good efforts on attack out of individual plays. But those were almost always lacking, be it due to a pass hit behind a player or simply having no other men donning Chelsea’s shirt to support those runs.
Ultimately, Barça ended up gifting possession back to Chelsea after La Masia product Pedro entered the pitch for Eden Hazard in the last 10 minutes of the affair. But the lack of edge on these advances meant that Chelsea would remain goalless at Camp Nou, with the three goals scored by our opponents tonight more than enough to take them into the Champions League’s quarterfinals.
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