Out-of-form Blues have what it takes to beat Barca


The ri­valry be­tween Chelsea and Barcelona has pro­duced a re­mark­able se­quence of matches over the past 18 years, matches that have oc­ca­sion­ally pushed at the pa­ram­e­ters of what is ac­cept­able, and fre­quently chal­lenged the bound­aries of what is pos­si­ble.

Chelsea should have no chance. Their man­ager is al­most cer­tainly leav­ing in the sum­mer. Re­cent per­for­mances have been in­con­sis­tent and oc­ca­sion­ally limp. They have lost four of their past six Premier League fix­tures and have won only five of their last 16 matches in all com­pe­ti­tions. They are fifth in the league, four points off fourth.

Barcelona, mean­while, are still un­beaten in la Liga, eight points clear of sec­ond. They have dropped only four points at home this sea­son and won all three of their home Cham­pi­ons League group games.

Ev­ery­thing says this should be a com­fort­able Barcelona win, and an­other step to­ward the exit for An­to­nio Conte.

And yet the his­tory of the fix­ture and the na­ture of the first leg of­fers rea­son for pause. Chelsea should have won at Stam­ford Bridge. They led 1-0 and seemed in con­trol when a sloppy pass from An­dreas Chris­tensen, a lapse in con­cen­tra­tion from Cesc Fabre­gas and a pan­icky lunge from Ce­sar Azpilicueta handed Barca an equal­izer.

But it was more than that. What was clear from that first leg was that this Barcelona are not the Barcelona of 2011 or even 2015. They are slower. They do not mes­merise teams with the pace of their pass­ing. They play a more cau­tious game and frail­ties in their de­fend­ing make them vul­ner­a­ble, what­ever re­sults in Spain may sug­gest.

Wil­lian scored but he also hit the post twice in the first leg. Again and again he surged through un­chal­lenged on the counter.

The space he found should alarm the Cata­lans. Their switch to 4-4-2 should have added pro­tec­tion in front of the back four, but there was lit­tle sign of that at Stam­ford Bridge. Rather Ser­gio Bus­quets, the lit­tle pace he had hav­ing seem­ingly de­serted him en­tirely, was over­whelmed, just as he had been in the 4-0 de­feat away to Paris St.Ger­main at this stage last sea­son. That tie, of course, should keep any Chelsea op­ti­mism in check — Barca have fre­quently re­deemed a dis­ap­point­ing away per­for­mance in Europe with an em­phatic dis­play at home — but the les­son of that first leg was that Ernesto Valverde’s side is far from im­preg­nable.

The big­gest sys­temic is­sue for Chelsea in the first leg was that by de­ploy­ing Eden Haz­ard as a false nine they oc­ca­sion­ally lacked an ob­vi­ous out­let when they needed to re­lieve pres­sure. Al­though it could be ar­gued that Haz­ard’s move­ment cre­ated space for Wil­lian, the Bel­gian made clear af­ter the de­feat at Manch­ester City that he does not en­joy the role and, with Conte in­sist­ing he will con­sult play­ers on tac­tics be­fore tonight’s game, it seems likely Haz­ard will re­vert to his pre­ferred in­side-for­ward role with Olivier Giroud of­fer­ing a more phys­i­cal tar­get at cen­ter­for­ward.

At the end of Septem­ber, Chelsea pro­duced prob­a­bly the best per­for­mance by an English side in this sea­son’s Cham­pi­ons League to win at Atletico Madrid. That feels a long time ago, but if a re­turn to Spain ig­nites some­thing sim­i­lar, Conte could have a glo­ri­ous farewell yet.

LON­DON: In the mem­ory of Ramires chip­ping the ball over Vic­tor Valdes lies the knowl­edge that none of this makes much sense.

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