Maybe lightning strikes twice, but it wasn’t rolling thunder or crashing of clouds that brought about the storm (of emotions) in southwest London. It was the sight of Andres Iniesta. Only this time, the effect was felt indirectly and the blow was delivered by the man who had been kept at bay by Chelsea on numerous occasions, except on Tuesday night.
Lionel Messi finally breached the goal at Stamford Bridge with his 30th shot in his ninth meeting with Chelsea. It had taken Barcelona 75 minutes (and Messi 730) to break through, with a controlled performance from Antonio Conte’s men restricting the Catalans more than usual, and the Italian’s strategy had almost worked. Almost.
One error was all Ernesto Valverde’s side needed to inflict their punishment. Conte knew the catastrophic consequences of Andreas Christensen’s misplaced pass; his head was in his hands even before the ball went past Thibaut Courtois. Iniesta duly capitalised, picking the perfect pass for Messi, whose sweeping left-footed finish swung the tie back in their favour.
It felt like a gift – which it was, albeit unintentional, from the young Danish defender. But the impact was such that even the usually calm and collected Valverde showed a flash of emotion. After the match, Conte said: “When you make a mistake against Messi, [Luis] Suarez and Iniesta, you have to pay.” And pay they did, with an away goal which may well prove to be crucial in the second leg at Camp Nou.
In any case, Conte isn’t the only one who has some thinking to do. Valverde will be concerned with the way his La Liga leaders were left exposed by Conte’s tactics, and the number of times Chelsea were allowed opportunities before they eventually took the lead. He acknowledged as much, saying: “We gave too much space to Willian to shoot.” The home side took 11 shots as opposed to seven from Barcelona, despite having only 27% of possession. However, the two teams had the same number of shots on target (2).
Willian – who enjoyed a wonderful evening – was usually seen surging behind the midfield where Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic were pulling the strings, and it was from a Barcelona corner, claimed by Courtois, that his goal was scored. In his case, lightning had struck on the third try. In the first half, Willian hit both posts in the space of eight minutes – Chelsea’s best two chances to break the deadlock. He even drew an early foul from Rakitic, who was probably lucky to have stayed on the pitch after two challenges following the booking.
When he did fire past Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique was seen standing with his hands on his hips, a look of confusion on his face, when Barcelona really should have seen it coming. The Brazilian has a penchant for scoring goals from distance in the Champions League: six of his nine strikes for Chelsea have come from outside the box (67%). In fact, since joining the Premier League side in 2013/14, Willian has scored more Champions League goals from outside the box than any other player. Had he converted with his fourth shot, Conte might have been a little more satisfied with the result.
This was only the second time that Barcelona had conceded in eight games (after Olympiacos scored late at Camp Nou), and the first time they trailed since that 3-0 defeat against Juventus almost over a year ago. Nevertheless, their record away to Chelsea is hardly glittering. Barcelona have conceded in each of their seven visits to Stamford Bridge, drawing once and losing on four occasions. The only win came back in February 2006, which was also the last time Chelsea lost to them – they have won twice and drawn the rest.
Conte mentioned Suarez, and while there is no doubt regarding his ability, the Uruguayan has found life difficult in the Champions League. The 31-year-old last scored in Barcelona’s 6-1 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain and is currently going through his longest goal drought in the competition (881 minutes). Defeating the mighty Blaugrana in their own backyard is another matter entirely, where Chelsea have only managed draws since 2006.
In their last three encounters, the team which progressed into the next round went on to lift the trophy. That was March 2006, when Ronaldo’s moment of magic ensured Barcelona’s campaign continued, April 2009, when Iniesta scored *that* agonisingly late equaliser at Stamford Bridge, and April 2012, when Didier Drogba’s goal in the first leg of the semi-final made the difference after it ended 2-2 at Camp Nou.
That was the last time they met before Tuesday’s clash, and although a lot has changed since then, there are some constants as well – including the man who officiated the fixtures. Turkey’s Cuneyt Cakir retained his position as the referee, Cesc Fabregas started both games, one for each team, of course, and only Messi, Iniesta, Pique and Gary Cahill remain at their respective clubs.
Judging from the latest meeting between the two sides (13th, the most played fixture in the competition), Conte can rightly be optimistic about his side’s chances. In his words, Chelsea were “close to playing the perfect performance.” They went into the game as underdogs, and they will be outsiders in the second leg as well, but they did show that Barcelona, as impressive as their defensive record is, can look distinctly vulnerable at times. “In Barcelona, we must be prepared to suffer together,” Conte added. Whether their suffering will bring any fruit, as the Chelsea manager would hope, can only be known on March 14.
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featured image credit ChelseaDaft