By, Ayodeji Itasanmi (Twitter: @aryhorblueblood)
Stamford Bridge/February 20, 2018
This is the biggest of our three consecutive home matches in three different competitions and we couldn’t have prepared any better than with two victories against West Bromwich Albion last Monday and against Hull City on Friday night, keeping clean sheets in both matches while scoring seven goals of our own. Barcelona equipped with Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and co are a significantly different proposition than West Brom and Hull City but I believe we stand a chance against the La Liga table toppers if we play as good as we did against both Hull City and West Brom considering Barcelona are in the middle of their own dip in form, with them only managing draws from their last two league games before easily dispatching Eibar on Saturday afternoon.
It’s level pegging in the rivalry between these two European giants as there had been five wins apiece and five draws in the fifteen matches between them prior to Tuesday night’s showdown at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea and Barcelona supporters have grown accustomed to each other over the years and it started way back in 1966 when the two teams needed three matches to find a winner after they were paired together in the Fairs Cup semi-final. Barcelona won their home leg 2-0 and Chelsea responded in kind thanks to two own goals. The third and final match was required, with Barcelona winning the third match emphatically by five goals to nil. We had to wait almost thirty-four years before facing Barcelona again, this time in the UEFA Champions’ League when we faced them in the quarter finals of the 1999/2000 Champions League season – which was our first in the competition. Chelsea won the home leg 3-1 thanks to goals, in eight first half minutes, from Gianfranco Zola and Tore Andre Flo (2) before Luis Figo replied for the visitors. Barcelona won the return leg at the Nou Camp 5-1 after extra time, with the match ending 3-1 in regulation time, thereby sending us out of the competition. Since that first encounters however, Chelsea and Barcelona have gone on to lock horns in the UCL ten more times with Chelsea winning three of those (L2 D5). The last time we faced Barcelona was in April 2012, en route to winning the Champions’ League for the first time, when we fought back from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Ramires and Fernando Torres scoring our goals. While Barcelona still has Lionel Messi, Andreas Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique in their team from their team in 2012, only David Luiz and Gary Cahill remained for Chelsea. There has only ever been one match between these two teams that failed to produce a goal and that was the first leg of our semi-final match back in the 2008/2009 UCL season. Lionel Messi will be hoping he finally finds the back of Chelsea’s net on Tuesday night after failing to do so in his first eight matches against the Blues. Chelsea haven’t lost to Barcelona in a match where we’ve finished with the full complement of our 11 players and we haven’t lost at all to Barcelona in our last seven encounters against them (W2 D5). We have lost only once to Barcelona at Stamford Bridge during the 2005/2006 season in the second round 1-2 no thanks to Asier Del Horno’s early red card.
Antonio Conte made wholesome changes to his team for Friday night’s FA Cup fifth round match against Hull City and I’m sure he’d have been pleased with the way his team performed against the Championship side, but normal service is sure to resume on Tuesday when Barcelona comes to town. Andreas Christensen, Cesar Azpilicueta, N’Golo Kante, Victor Moses, and Eden Hazard are sure to come back into the team on Tuesday having all been rotated out of the team for the visit of Hull City on Friday. Antonio Conte acknowledged the fact that he’ll have selection headaches ahead of the visit of Barcelona to Stamford Bridge, for the first time in almost six years, with the way his fringe players performed on Friday. Emerson Palmieri felt at home in the left wingback role and he didn’t look out of place or like someone playing his first match at Stamford Bridge but Antonio Conte did confirm that Marcos Alonso will be available for Tuesday and the Spaniard will most likely start ahead of the newcomer if he’s considered fit enough. Thibaut Courtois should return in goal as well. I think the back three will comprise of the trio of Cesar Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Toni Rudiger because of their pace as we might need to keep a high defensive line to combat the pace in Barcelona’s attack. It’ll surely be a difficult decision to keep one of Cesc Fabregas and Danny Drinkwater on the bench after their performances on Friday but we can only play with one of them because I think we’d need a three-pronged attack to trouble Barcelona’s shaky defence and the trio of Willian, Morata and the mercurial Eden Hazard will surely cause that defence a lot of trouble.
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Hazard, Morata, Willian.
Last Five Matches: WWLLW
Injuries: Ross Barkley (Hamstring) – Doubt; Tiemoue Bakayoko (Knock) – Out; David Luiz (Knock) – Doubt.
If there’s a time this season so far to play Barcelona then I’d say it’s the present time with their early season momentum seemingly slowing almost to halt, but with Barcelona you can never tell. It is safe to say Ernesto Valverde may have given his starting XI a run out against Eibar on Saturday with the Spaniard choosing to omit his expensive new acquisition Phillipe Coutinho, who’s ineligible to play for them in the Champions’ League having already represented Liverpool in the competition this season, even though he did come on in the second half to replace Andreas Iniesta with the match still in the balance. Marc Andre ter Stegen should be in goal barring any injuries to him between now and kick off and he’s likely to be protected by the quartet of Sergio Roberto, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba. With Valverde favouring a four-man midfield with Sergio Busquets and Paulinho as the anchor with Ivan Rakitic and Andreas Iniesta the ones to support the attack on occasion. Andre Gomes and Paco Alcacer and the injury-prone Ousmane Dembele are other options for a midfield berth depending on the coach’s game plan. Lionel Messi and Luiz Suarez will be leading the attack for Barcelona but they of course have the license to drift wide taking the defenders with them which will give a midfield runner a clear sight of goal, something I’m sure Antonio Conte would have made his team aware of.
Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Paulinho, Iniesta, Dembele; Messi, Suarez.
Last 5 matches: WDWDW
Injuries: Thomas Vermaelen (Groin) – Doubt.
N’Golo Kante vs. Lionel Messi
This battle may eventually decide which way the pendulum of this tie swings after the first leg on Tuesday. N’Golo Kante will surely have one of the biggest task of his footballing career to date which is to try and stop Lionel Messi, not an easy for any one person to do but if there’s one player who can do it then it’s our French dynamite.
Andreas Christensen vs. Luiz Suarez
Andreas Christensen has faced Barcelona before when he was on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach albeit that was a Suarez-less Barcelona he faced and on Tuesday he’s going to be going against a beast in the shape of the Uruguayan. Luiz Suarez will surely give our Danish Prince the run around but I trust Christensen would be able to live with whatever Suarez might throw at him. Bring it on!
Eden Hazard vs. Sergio Roberto
Like Christensen, Sergio Roberto is a Barcelona academy graduate who’s trying to cut his teeth in the first team and he’s been doing quite well recently but he won’t have faced anyone in the mould of Eden Hazard in his young footballing career. He has to bring his ‘A’ game to be able to live with Hazard especially in the kind of form the Belgian is in. I honestly do not envy the young Spanish defender at all.
With both these teams coming from a mid-season dip in form, this match is going to be important for both teams as a win will surely mean a return to form especially for the winning team while the losing team goes back to the drawing board. The last time Eden Hazard and Messi played on the same pitch it was the little Argentine that carried the day as Argentina defeated Belgium 1-0 in the quarter-final of the last World Cup, but here’s to wishing the team the best of luck for Tuesday night. Keep the Blue Flag Flying High!
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Bleacher Report
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