Ayodeji Itasanmi (Twitter: @aryhorblueblood)
Camp Nou/March 14, 2018
This is arguably our biggest and most difficult match of the remainder and I’m sure Antonio Conte and his players will be under no illusion as to the difficulty of the task that awaits them at the Catalan on Wednesday night. We couldn’t have prepared better for the battle at the Camp Nou than with such an assured performance against a pretty tricky opponent in Crystal Palace on Saturday evening and I’m sure that performance will stand the team in good stead ahead of the trip to Spain on Wednesday. Barcelona also got ready for the visit of Chelsea with a 2-0 win over Malaga at the weekend to maintain their 8-point gap over second-placed Atletico Madrid. So, the stage is set for what’s going to be a feast of football artistry with the quality of players on both sides. I personally cannot wait for kick off!
It’s still level pegging in the rivalry between these two European giants as there had been five wins apiece and six draws in the sixteen matches between them prior to Wednesday night’s showdown at Camp Nou. 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 and a third and final match was required after the match finished all squared on aggregate with Barcelona winning the toss for home advantage and 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 at the Camp Nou 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 – the Spaniard’s coming deep into injury time. 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 to add to his tally against the Blues having scored the equalizer at Stamford Bridge – his first goal against the Blues in nine matches. Chelsea haven’t lost to Barcelona in a match we’ve finished with the full complement of our 11 players and we haven’t lost at all to Barcelona in our last eight encounters against them (W2 D6). We’re on a 4 game unbeaten run at the Camp Nou (D4) a run that started with our draw at the iconic stadium in the group stage of the UCL back in March 2006 and we only failed to score once in that run in the first leg semi-final match in 2009 (0-0).
Antonio Conte has to be pleased with the way his team responded to the defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad the previous week even though I doubt he would have been with the concession of the Crystal palace’s goal so late into the match. Andreas Christensen had been showing signs of fatigue in recent weeks and going into arguably the biggest match of his fledging career I would have thought Antonio Conte would have rested him for the Palace game, especially since Ethan Ampadu was back in the match day squad but that was not to be so hopefully he’ll have enough in the tank to cope with Lionel Messi and co. I’ll personally be surprised if Conte decides to change the front three of Eden Hazard, Olivier Giroud and Willian for the trip to Spain on Wednesday because the link up play and understanding between those three was a beauty to behold. As a matter of fact, if I’m to choose the squad for the match at Camp Nou I’d only bring back both Victor Moses and Antonio Rudiger for Davide Zappacosta and Gary Cahill respectively from the team that performed so well against Palace at the weekend. Depending on the game plan Danny Drinkwater, who had performed excellently in recent games, might be brought into the midfield to add some steel just like in the first leg and Tiemoue Bakayoko is also back available in midfield even though it’ll be a shock if he’s to be part of the starting XI on Wednesday night. Pedro Rodriguez will be returning to the Catalan and Barcelona as an opposition player since making the move to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2015 and I’m sure he’d like to be the one to nail the coffin buries his former side but he’ll have to settle for a place on the substitutes’ bench because with the kind of form both Willian and Hazard are on, no coach will be willing to take either one of them out of his team for such an important fixture.
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Hazard, Giroud, Willian.
Last Five Matches: WLLDW
Injuries: Ross Barkley (Hamstring) – Doubt; David Luiz (Knee) – Doubt.
Ernesto Valverde, the Barcelona coach has used a predominantly 4-4-2 system this season with four natural midfielder across the midfield with two forming the base and the remaining two supporting the attack and Lionel Messi and Luiz Suarez lead the line with the Argentine playing slightly behind his Uruguayan counterpart. But with Messi missing their weekend win over Malaga due to the birth of his third child, Valverde chose to play in a 4-3-3 system. Sergio Roberto, Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Jordi Alba protected Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal with the trio of Ivan Rakitic, Sergio Busquets and Paulinho occupying the midfield while Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele played either side of Luiz Suarez upfront. However, with Lionel Messi likely to return to the team ahead of the match with the Blues their coach is also likely to revert back to the same eleven that played the first leg with the likely exception of Andreas Iniesta who’s rated as a doubt for the match on Wednesday night. The back five will certainly be the same as they were at the Estadio La Rosaleda on Saturday but with Phillipe Coutinho cup-tied Valverde is likely to choose from the trio of Aleix Vidal, Ousmane Dembele and Andre Gomes who to complete the midfield four with the trio of Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Paulinho almost assured a place already. Paco Alcacer is also an option in the midfield and wide area should Ernesto Valverde decides to go a different route on Wednesday night.
Ter Stegen; Roberto, Pique, Umtiti, Alba; Busquets, Paulinho, Rakitic, Dembele; Messi, Suarez.
Last 5 matches: WWWDW
Injuries: Andreas Iniesta (Hamstring) – Doubt.
N’Golo Kante vs. Lionel Messi
This battle may still decide which team goes through to the last eight of the UCL after Wednesday night’s match as these two players are so important for their respective clubs. 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. He limited Messi to one goal in the last encounter, he’ll be hoping to make that 0 goals on Wednesday.
Andreas Christensen vs. Luiz Suarez
Andreas Christensen did so well overall in the first leg and particularly against Luiz Suarez until that costly mistake led to the Spanish team’s equalizer took a little bit of shine off his performance and I’m sure he’ll be looking to atone for that error with another assured performance against the Uruguayan, who got one of the Catalan club’s goal at the weekend.
Olivier Giroud vs. Gerard Pique
It was something of a surprise that Antonio Conte decided to start the first leg without a recognised striker even though both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud was on the bench. I expect Olivier Giroud to start at the Camp Nou just as he did at the weekend because his presence will occupy the central defenders of Barcelona and open spaces for both Hazard and Willian. He may not have gotten a goal against Palace at the weekend but his all-round play was excellent and I he deserves a place in the team on Wednesday night and I think he stands a chance against an aging Gerard Pique.
There’s absolutely no doubt Barcelona has the advantage going into Wednesday night’s match having scored an away goal and playing in familiar surroundings but football has proven time and again that it’s not played on paper and Chelsea has a chance at qualification, especially if Antonio Conte gets his tactics spot on like he did during the first leg with the tie delicately poised at 1-1. Conte will certainly need all his big stars to stand up and be counted on Wednesday night as all hands must be on deck if we’re to do the unthinkable and make it to the quarter-finals of this season’s UEFA Champions’ League joining already-qualified duo Liverpool and Manchester City (and likely to qualify Manchester United) in the heart for the draw. We have Leicester City and the FA Cup as a kind of fall back plan for a trophy this season especially if things do not go as plan at the Camp Nou but until that mammoth FA Cup match at the King Power Stadium please Keep The Blue Flag Flying Highs!
Thumbnail image courtesy of: Bleacher Report
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