Antonio Conte takes his Chelsea side to the Camp Nou on Wednesday looking to add a third Premier League team into Friday’s quarter final draw. After Manchester United’s disappointing exit at the hands of Sevilla, can Chelsea knockout Barcelona this evening following a draw in the first leg? The odds are against Conte’s men but here are five things Chelsea could do in order to progress.
Go on the attack
You might be thinking that opening yourself up and going on the offensive against a team as strong as Barcelona would be foolish. With previous incarnations of the Spanish giants, I’d agree wholeheartedly. However, under Ernesto Valverde they’re a little less ruthless on the counter and instead prefer to opt for more defensive stability. This means attacking them isn’t the death wish it once was.
With Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busquets as the central mainstays it won’t be easy to win the battle. Even more so if, as expected, Andres Iniesta manages to recover quick enough to start.
No one can deny the talent of those three but under Valverde’s system the roles are less obvious. We’re seeing Busquets venture further forward and leaving Rakitic to shield the defence. Iniesta can cause damage further forward but off the left wing, defensively, he’s a weak link.
Celta Vigo are a side which always cause Barcelona problems because of their high-pressing style. If you can get beyond Barcelona’s midfield, their defence isn’t rock solid. Samuel Umtiti and Marc-Andre ter Stegen are fantastic but both have been called into action a lot more than originally expected.
There’s a fine balance between attacking with purpose and going gung-ho. That same Celta side couldn’t quite get it right but there’s a greater quality with Chelsea. There are moments where you need to absorb the pressure, cross your fingers and hope, but you can’t sit back and expect to get lucky for 90 minutes. Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it always will.
Get Hazard out wide, attacking the right back
Barcelona’s XI is rightfully feared in Europe but there’s one area which hasn’t been the same since a certain Brazilian left. No, not Neymar but Dani Alves. Sergi Roberto is a fine footballer and his versatility is the reason he’s survived the ‘La Masia’ cull whilst others haven’t. A central midfielder by trade he’s turning into a solid right back but it remains the most vulnerable part of Barcelona’s team.
Nelson Semedo started like a house on fire but his naivety, particularly in defence, has seen Valverde place his trust in Roberto instead. Aleix Vidal is still at the club but in recent months his role is to sit in front of the full back rather than being in defence himself. So this means Roberto, the man for the big occasions, is the most likely man to get the nod. For this reason, Eden Hazard needs to go against him.
Hazard is the main outlet for Chelsea in attack. Playing as a false night it’ll be more difficult to be involved as Umtiti loves to push further forward and make it uncomfortable for the striker. If Hazard tries to hold the ball up, he’s going to get bullied.
This is why Hazard playing out wide in a more familiar role would be smarter. If Hazard can take advantage of Barcelona’s right-hand side, he’s capable of punishing Barcelona. The Belgian can’t afford to go missing.
Track Jordi Alba’s forward runs
When people are thinking of ways to shut down Barcelona they tend to focus on Lionel Messi. It makes sense as he’s arguably the greatest footballer to ever play the game. Yet, for that very same reason, the concept of trying to mark him out of the match is useless. You can’t stop Messi from receiving the ball. Better teams, players and coaches have tried but he’ll go to his own penalty area if need be to influence proceedings.
So what do you then? Instead of marking Messi, you mark the players he prefers passing to. Jordi Alba is like an Energizer Bunny down the left and his late forays into the box are lethal. One of Messi’s specialities is picking out those runs to devastating effect. It makes sense for Willian, or Victor Moses, to track Alba and cut out a key outlet. There’s also the chance to spring a quick counterattack too.
Teams obsess about Messi and this leaves space for his teammates to exploit. If you keep Alba in check, you limit a huge part of Messi’s inflence. That can only be a good thing.
Chelsea must be clinical
This is football 101 I know, but it’s imperative that Chelsea don’t spurn the big chances when they come their way. We aren’t talking about half-chances or long-range punts here, but clear goalscoring opportunities. The one thing you can’t do with an efficient Barcelona team is let them off the hook. You need to punish them so they become fearful of your attack.
Chelsea are the lowest scorers in the Premier League’s top six which is pretty damning. Part of the reason for that is because Alvaro Morata hasn’t hit the ground running. The biggest criticism aimed at the Spaniard is his wastefulness in front of goal and that’s the one thing Chelsea can’t afford tonight.
New signing Olivier Giroud is hardly prolific either which explains why Hazard plays as a striker most of the time. As I said before, I’d rather see Hazard just behind a main forward so he’s able to play closer to the full back.
Has Conte seen enough of Morata to trust him in one of the biggest matches of the season? It’ll be a big call if Morata starts and, if he does, the Spaniard must reward his manager’s faith by being ruthless in front of goal. Something he hasn’t shown to date.
Barcelona are slow starters, don’t allow them to settle
The one criticism you can maybe aim at this Barcelona side is how slow they are out of the blocks. Like Usain Bolt, once they’re up to full speed, most can’t hang with them but it’s important for opponents to take any advantage which presents itself. In the league Barcelona have scored almost two thirds of their goals in the second half of matches. It’s the early stages where they tend to be a little less efficient.
This is also commonplace throughout their Champions League campaign. Of Barcelona’s 10 goals in the competition, eight have come in the second half. If you are to gain an advantage over Valverde’s team then you need to do it early as they’re likely to get better as the match goes on. If it’s 0-0 around the hour mark, Chelsea’s chance of progression might already be quite slim.