Tuesday 20th February 2018, Stamford Bridge – It was another huge European might at the Bridge. And this particular fixture had lit up so many Chelsea fans’ nights (and days), all the way since Chelsea and Barcelona first met in the semi-final of the 1965/66 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – the UEFA Cup’s predecessor.
Through to the turn of the century, when Chelsea and Barcelona met again in the 1999/2000 Champions League quarter-finals. Blues cult hero Tore Andre Flo scored two in the first leg at Stamford Bridge, and Gianfranco Zola and Luis Figo got a goal apiece to make it 3 – 1. Chelsea suffered a 5 – 1 demolition at Camp Nou though. The immortal Vitor Rrrrivaldo (the only way to say it) scored one goal each in normal time and extra time, and Luis Figo, Dani, and Patrick Kluivert scored another three. Flo scored Chelsea’s consolation goal.
Chelsea evened the scores in the decade and a half after Roman Abramovich bought the club. First we had Jose Mourinho and Frank Rijkaard’s mind games in the 2005 CL round of 16. Didier Drogba was controversially sent off in the first leg as Barca won 2 – 1. John Terry, Frank Lampard, Eidur Gudjohnsen and Damien Duff all scored to win the return leg 4 – 2 for Chelsea – even as Ronaldinho scored one of the greatest goals in Champions League history at Stamford Bridge.
Riijkaard had his revenge the very next season, with own goals from Thiago Motta and John Terry playing a role as Barcelona got past Chelsea in the round of 16, on their way to winning their second ever European Cup in 2006.
Jump to 2009, and the unbelievable controversy around the refereeing in the Chelsea-Barcelona Champions League semi-final, to gift Pep Guardiola his first ever European Cup as a manager. Michael Essien and Andres Iniesta scored in the ninth and ninetieth minute respectively of that 1 – 1 draw.
And then Lionel Messi in tears, Didier Drogba, Ramires and Fernando Torres the heroes in the 2012 Champions League semi-final, canceling out goals from Sergio Busquets and Iniesta to give Roberto di Matteo’s team an underdog victory for the ages over Guardiola’s Barcelona, just before Chelsea won their first ever Champions League title in Munich.
Having helped Chelsea earn the right to play at this level again, with a run-away title win in the 2016/17 season, Antonio Conte was facing the problem Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and di Matteo all had before him: dealing with the season after record-breaking success at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s Chelsea were having an inconsistent second season to the say the least. They were struggling to cope with the combined pressure of redeveloping their stadium, the return to European football, and some ill-advised, poorly-coordinated attempts to change the previous season’s winning formula.
After huge defeats against Bournemouth and Watford, the Blues had somewhat placated their fans and the pundits with consecutive 3 – 0 and 4 – 0 wins over West Bromwich Albion and Hull City. There were still some unanswered questions though. Were the big losses just a dip in form caused by a tired squad? Or did the club have deeper problems than Conte could fix?
In contrast, Barcelona were buzzing along happily at the top of La Liga Santander. They were seven points clear of Atletico Madrid. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were the league’s top scorers with twenty and seventeen goals respectively, and Barcelona had just beaten SD Eibar 2 – 0 away to equal their best ever unbeaten run in La Liga (thirty-one games).
The big news for Chelsea this game: both recognized strikers Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud were on the bench. Conte opted for his “small ball” attacking line-up with Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard up top, N’golo Kante and Cesc Fabregas in midfield and Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen in the back three. Marcos Alonso also returned from an injury to start this game.
Ernesto Valverde started the same eleven as the weekend game in Eibar: Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez were supported by Andres Iniesta in attack, Sergio Busquets. Ivan Rakitic and ex-Tottenham player Paulinho held down midfield, and Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti were flanked by Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto in defence.
Line-Ups & Ratings
Courtois 6.5, Moses 7.5, Azpilicueta 8, Christensen 5, Rudiger 7.5, Alonso 7.5, Kante 7.5, Fabregas 7 (Drinkwater 6), Pedro 6.5 (Morata 5.5), Willian 8.5, Hazard 7.5
Subs Caballero, Zappacosta, Cahill, Drinkwater, Hudson-Odoi, Morata, Giroud
ter Stegen 7, Alba 7, Umtiti 7, Pique 6, Sergi 6.5, Paulinho 6.5 (Vidal 6), Rakitic 7, Busquets 5.5, Iniesta 8 (Gomes NR), Luis Suarez 7, Messi 8
Subs Cillesen, Digne, Vermaelen, Denis Suarez, Gomes, Vidal, Dembele
Willian On Fire
Chelsea had the game’s first major chance. Fabregas put the ball out wide to Willian, and he moved it along to Eden Hazard, who was coming in on the right wing next to him. Hazard looked as if he would cross, but then cut in past Alba and tried a shot from edge of the box, but it went just wide.
Rudiger had a great opportunity off a corner as well; he easily got above Pique to connect with the cross, but a slight bump from Umtiti put his header off target.
Messi lofted a cross into the box on fifteen minutes. Paulinho got a free header as Marcos Alonso had lost track of him, but he also knocked the ball wide.
Willian burst through midfield and would have been through on goal, but Rakitic brought him down and was booked. Alonso’s free kick was on target but a bit too close to ter Stegen, and the keeper claimed the ball.
Hazard, Willian and Pedro had been interchanging to great effect in attack. Willian had a wonderful chance when he dribbled in from the left wing and drove a curling shot in at goal, but the ball struck the post and came back out again. It was a real let off for Barcelona, as Busquets had failed to close Willian down properly and ter Stegen was completely beaten.
Five minutes before half time, Sergi Roberto hooked a Chelsea long ball back and into Willian’s path on the edge of the area. The Brazilian forward was unmarked by Pique and Umtiti and he did not hesitate: he whipped in another shot but it came back off the opposite post.
Alonso was fouled after intercepting a pass from Busquets. Fabregas sent the resulting free kick into the box but Pique headed it out towards Hazard, who took it on the volley, but his shot arced over the bar. The teams went in goalless at halftime, Chelsea with the better chances by far.
Ten minutes into the second half, Luis Suarez took a neat touch to dribble past Azpilicueta into the box. He tried a shot but he was too far wide for it to be effective. Courtois got a hand to it just to make sure.
Finally on sixty-one minutes, Chelsea made their breakthrough: Hazard was in possession out left, and Barcelona were doing their best lower league opposition impression, with nine players in the box.
They completely neglected to mark Willian who was in acres of space on the edge of the box again. It was an easy decision for Hazard – he passed to Willian, and Busquets tried to close in for a tackle but it was too late. This time Willian went for placement, drifting sideways then passing the ball right of ter Stegen, into the corner for 1 – 0.
Luis Suarez tried to claim a penalty shortly afterwards but his fall looked more like a dive than a push from Rudiger.
Messi Finally Scores
Chelsea’s lead lasted all of thirteen minutes. Barcelona hadn’t had a real shot on goal worth the name all game, but suddenly they were gifted one. Andreas Christensen was in possession out in the left back area, but he chose to pass the ball all the way across the box… to no-one in particular. Andres Iniesta gratefully intercepted at the opposite end of the box.
Iniesta could have taken the shot himself, but chose to drive to the by-line and then cut back for Messi, who played a simple low finish for the equalizer, 1 – 1.
It was his first goal against Chelsea in nine games and 730 minutes of play, spanning several years of Champions League football. It was a poor one for Chelsea to concede, and a sadly uncharacteristic, completely unforced error from Christensen. Conte brought on Morata and then Drinkwater with seven minutes left to play, but they could not make an impact on the scoreline.
The stats showed Barcelona had 73% of possession by the end of the game, but Chelsea had more (and better quality) chances – eleven shots to Barcelona’s seven, with two shots on target for each team. So did Messi & Co. starve Chelsea of possession, or was Conte’s team content to let them have the ball in non-threatening areas?
Willian was the man of the match in the Chelsea’s last game, and he was on fire tonight as well. He put the fear of God in the Barcelona defence, hit the post twice, could have had a hat trick.
Messi played well, but at the end he was limited to poaching an opportunistic goal off a defensive error. Barcelona have the advantage of an away goal going into the second leg, but the tie remains open, with a full ninety minutes to go.
Final Score Chelsea 1 – 1 Barcelona
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Metro
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