Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1: Lionel Messi punishes single mistake to take crucial away goal to Nou Camp
Tehran(KNA): Antonio Conte had said before the game – and reiterated afterwards – that Chelsea have to “prepare to suffer” against a side as brilliant as Barcelona, but he didn’t mean like this. This will have so particularly pained the Italian himself.
The great frustration was that his team really had suffered in terms of working themselves to the bone, in terms of creditably pushing themselves to physical limits to go “very close to playing the perfect game”, only to be undone by one single mental slip.
That will now greatly play on the minds of the manager and Andreas Christensen, and is probably why Conte came out so strongly backing the young Dane after the game.
The great regret for Chelsea then is still that they couldn’t win this Champions League last-16 first leg when they had limited a side as good as Barca, a player as brilliant as Lionel Messi.
The one consolation should be that it still wasn’t a defeat, still wasn’t a result that’s insurmountable, and the very patterns on the pitch only emphasised that.
In the entire 63-year history of the European Cup and Champions League, after all, only six sides have qualified from a tie after losing the first leg at home. There’s normally too much to do, too much of a psychological barrier to overcome, as much as a scoreline.
As such, any added Barca goal here would probably have truly been fatal for Chelsea. They didn’t get it, however, and it’s difficult not to put down to the fact this is a rather different Barca to the last 10 years of their history.
It is more constrained, more ponderous. This should justify Conte’s evident pride after the match, and the feeling that Messi’s late goal is by no means the tie-winner. It should embolden him, especially since there is still the opportunity to rectify some issues in the team beyond Christensen’s error.
This was just one of a few natural curiosities to a tie this complex. As close to perfect as Conte insisted his side were, and with a lot of merit, there were still some issues that can be fixed.
Perhaps one might come in midfield, and might involve a painful decision.
One of the elements that so illustrates the evolution of this Barca into something more compact is the revival of the sublime Sergio Busquets, and how more of their game revolves around a midfielder like him rather than a controller like Xavi – or in this case Ivan Rakitic. They are a tighter and more constrained team, keeping everything closer.
So, while the circumstances of this match ensured Busquets ended up playing more passes than any other Barca player in any other match this season, many of them led to attacks that just passed Cesc Fabregas by.
The former Barca player remains one of the finest playmakers in the game, but he and his team are better served when he is left to mostly proactively create rather than protect and destroy. That Chelsea did not get more punishment for this is in hindsight rather surprising, and perhaps emphasises that lack of extra cutting edge to this Barca.
The English champions themselves can be much more cutting edge than this and it is conspicuous that their best attacks came from Willian long shots rather than the kind of rapid counters that characterised last season.
This is something they can work on for the return, but it may involve more work with Willian. There is another issue here.
“Willian has the potential to play this type of game every match,” Conte had said after the game. “I hope to see this type of performance for a long time. Against Hull [City in the FA Cup] he played a fantastic game. Tonight, too. When you play in this way, the coach doesn’t have doubts. You play.”
But this is the thing. Willian is very evidently a confidence player who seems to perform in waves, with that disrupted on the regular occasions he is left out of the team. He is now on the crest of wave, so maybe should stay in that team, but also should lead those counters with those long pacy breaks as much as long powerful shots.
Conte was asked whether the Brazilian outshone Messi in this game, and it was another curiosity. The Argentine has arguably performed much better in the many much-discussed games when he didn’t score against Chelsea.
His eventual strike here does set a final curiosity for this match, that will condition the next one.
Barca have the advantage and can readily sit back and keep possession, but there will be that natural expectation at Camp Nou to come out and take the initiative. It is one reason why Messi’s goal was the first scored by a Barca player in a Champions League away game this season.
Chelsea meanwhile have to score, but know that to come out could be to effectively concede the tie.
“If you want to face them box to box, you are crazy,” Conte said. “You go to lose the game, not only 1-0 or 2-0, but like it happens in Spain... 4-0, 5-0, 6-0.”
There could then be the odd situation where both sides are somewhat playing against their aims, their plans. But keeping it tight against a side like Barca does not mean never venturing forward. It means trying to strike exactly the right balance between sturdy defending and striding forward.
“When you are suffering,” Conte reasserted, “you must know that when you have the ball you can create a chance to score.”
This first leg did remind people that, if you need to come up with such a plan for such a game, the Italian is the first manager you’d choose right now.
This is far from over, although the “suffering” isn’t either.