In football, as in life, you don’t always get what you deserve and at the moment Chelsea will certainly feel they should have got much more than a draw from the home leg of their last 16 Champions League tie against Barcelona. “We let them escape alive,” a Chelsea player told me at the end of the match.
Despite a perfect game plan that ceded possession for much of the game to their Catalan opponents yet still created the best chances with sharp incisive counter attacks, one defensive slip in an otherwise ‘A’ star performance means that Chelsea now have it all to do when they play the second leg at the Camp Nou on March 14.
A loose pass out of defence across the pitch from Andreas Christensen let in Andres Iniesta who found Leo Messi to stroke the ball home to give Barcelona a priceless away goal and a draw, that on the balance of play, they probably didn’t deserve.
Chelsea played really well, while Barcelona didn’t and the match still ended level. They now know they will have to score at the Nou Camp while simultaneously keeping a clean sheet.
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The last team to do that in the Champions league were Juventus in last season’s competition. The difference then was that the Italians took a three-goal lead to Spain and merely needed to keep Barcelona out, a luxury than the Londoners will not enjoy.
Chelsea will certainly start as underdogs for the second leg but in reality any notion that this tie is all over bar the shouting, should be tempered with discretion because the truth is that, despite sitting seven points clear at the top of La Liga, this is a Barcelona side that is not what it was; a side that flatters to deceive, particularly in attack.
Ignore the league table for a moment, in many ways this is in my opinion possibly the worst Barcelona we have seen for a decade.
There is much good about the side. Ter Stegen is an excellent goalkeeper, the centre back partnership of Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti seems to be working well and Jordi Alba is a fine left back. Sergio Busquets is still excellent as his side’s holding midfielder but the side looks stronger without the ball with Ivan Rakitic next to him, which takes one of their offensive contributors out when they have the ball.
In fact, up front they are lacking that dynamism, that quality up front, which has always separated them from the rest.
I am not talking about Messi but on the flanks alongside Luis Suarez they need much more if they are to state their case as genuine contenders for this year’s tournament. Otherwise both forwards get surrounded by players and space disappears.
Chelsea, apart from Christensen’s one ‘fluffed line’ basically wrote the script for this game, creating and deserving more than they ended up with.
Antonio Conte realised that the key to the game was stopping Messi by making sure he was always covered by more than one player when he got the ball and also preventing the marauding runs from left back by Jordi Alba.
As a result Messi was left no option other than to drop deeper and deeper in midfield where Chelsea were more than happy to see him because they knew any damage he could inflict on them from there would be limited.
The lack of a recognised number nine for Chelsea meant that they could then use the pace of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Willian to attack the spaces behind the lines that Barcelona were leaving. Once Willian scored Chelsea had the chance to kill Barcelona off because they were there for the taking. They failed to do so and it ended up costing them dear.
Messi’s performances have been camouflaging many of Barcelona’s problems this season but a lack of quality in the last third means that if you can stop them by defending deep in that area as both Espanyol and Getafe have shown lately, then you are always in with a counter puncher’s chance.
What is clear is that they no longer have the pace of wingmen at their disposal to go one on one with defenders and create the opportunities till Ousmane Dembele makes an impact which many doubt will happen this season. So far, Messi has to a certain extent, although not totally, managed to paper over the cracks and Ernesto Valverde has been using what he has available to him brilliantly.
Personally, I don’t see this Barcelona progressing much further in the competition, nor do I share the opinion of many that this game if effectively done and dusted.
A 1-0 victory would have been a far better outcome but a 1-1 draw is a long way short of being a disaster and I can’t think of any reason why this Chelsea side would line up, or play any differently, in Barcelona than they did at Stamford Bridge and hope that this time they get a better shake of the dice.
At one end of the pitch Messi can save the day and at the other so can Ter Stegen but that is not enough at this level and if Barcelona are looking to bring themselves back in contention for another Champions League win, the talk is of a clear out of at least one third of the squad.
Some of the players left already, another 4 or 5 will have to go. So Barcelona have built a squad a third of which is considered not good enough. Problem is they cannot compete in the market with other superclubs. The arrival of Philippe Coutinho and Dembele might have been a swansong. And being knocked out in the quarter finals of the Champions league in the last two seasons, a sign of things to come. Unless Messi decides otherwise.
Chelsea may well fall just short in the second leg but not by much and most worryingly for Barcelona other sides will have watched the game and realised that this is indeed as beatable a Barcelona side as we have seen for a long time.