(By Rahul Pandey)
Controversies clouding above, tackles lunging in, cards coming out, players being sent off, crowd having a plethora of emotions, tempers flaring up on the pitch and 22 world class players. There aren’t many fixtures in the world that serve us with all these ingredients. But when a team from catalan takes on the blue heart of London, it becomes more than just a football match. The result becomes a memory which is either cherished or it scars one for life. 12 matches are all that have made Chelsea-Barcelona arguably the biggest foes in European or as it goes, in World football. So when the 2 take guard for the 13th time on Tuesday at the Stamford Bridge, it will be more than just a quarter-final berth that would be at stake. So let’s start breaking the 5 talking points that will play the central role in deciding the fate of this world class tie.
- Catalan attack vs Blue resilience:
Since the Spanish Super Cup 5-1 thumping by the hands of arch rivals Real Madrid, Barcelona have turned upside-down. In La Liga they hold the undefeated streak of 24 games, accompanied with an astounding 62 goals. Even though they have scored only 9 times in 6 Champions League games, but the prime element of Barcelona’s winning strategy lies in attacking up front in numbers rather than falling behind and defending. This is where they face a reputed Blue wall in London. Chelsea would want to keep a clean sheet at home and that is exactly why the battle between Barca’s attack and Chelsea’s defence will be the one to look forward. But as hard as it is for the fans of England’s division-A champions, their defence has been below the average mark this season, which was viciously highlighted in the 4-1 and 0-3 defeats by the hands of Watford and Bournemouth, earlier this month. Hope has however found its way back to the Bridge after the recent clean sheet wins against West Brom and Hull City, but the London team needs to keep in mind the stature of the opposition they face. Barca’s attack has been clicking well, with all the individuals getting on the scoresheet and building attacks, when they are asked to. The blues are also to miss the services of centre-back David Luiz due to his injury and Gary Cahill, who isn’t likely to feature in the starting 11. Marcos Alonso is a good news for the London side and will most likely start alongside the likes of Christensen, Zappacosta and Azpilicueta on the opposite flank.
- Guardians of the goal:
Perhaps the net would weigh more than the galaxy, for the two goalkeepers in this tie. Barcelona and Chelsea have changed their gameplay significantly, since the last time they met in April 2012. Both have started approaching the goal more directly. Barca have come far from the Tiki-Taka, although it still persists but if we examine what they have done since Neymar left last summer. More shots on target, more chances created, less time consumed in short passes, as a result of which you may have noticed even Lio Messi losing the ball few times in the midfield. While Chelsea under Conte, have made their name into the list of teams winning with huge margins. Gone are the days when a single goal was enough for them. With this approach of play set up, Thibaut Courtois and Marc Andre ter Stegen are expected to have a busy 180 minutes. Both the Goalkeepers have had contrasting seasons, while ter Stegen has enjoyed a brilliant time with Barca, Courtois has had a rather forgettable season and hasn’t looked at his very best, conceeding 23 goals in 26 games in EPL alongwith 8 goals conceeded in Champions League so far. But when it comes to big game timeline, Courtois alongside ter Stegen are more than capable to make the strikers look dismal. So when the time comes, it might boil down to which of these two lads provide a better security at goal.
- Players missing out:
Amidst all the various uncertainities before the whistle blows off, there is only one certainity regarding this clash, both the teams will be starting with far from perfect 11. The 2011-12 Champions League winners have a string of players who are set to miss the first leg. Alongwith the confirmation of David Luiz’s injury, midfielders Tiemoue Bakayoko and Ross Barkley are also highly doubtful to feature. On the other hand the 2010-11 winners, Barcelona will be missing out the services of left-back Nelson Semedo due to his suspension in the group stages. Newly associated Phillipe Coutinho will also be missing out as he had started for Liverpool, earlier this season in the Champions League. It is fair to say that this will effect the way both approach towards the game and given the history between them and how close the results have been, one can’t help but think that this would somehow shape the scoreline at the end of the tie.
- The midfield battle:
For Barcelona, keeping the ball has always been at the core of their game, even at trainings. But let us recapitulate what went wrong the last time they played Chelsea and lost the tie. They had a possession of about 65%, infact in the last 15 minutes of the game it was 80-20%. So how did they end up on the losing side. Because they didn’t create and capitalize the chances. It is a straightforward fact that Barca will have more of the ball as they always do and their midfield will dominate in that respect but a very interesting factor will be how N’Golo Kante makes amends down the Barca end. This is the first time he will be up against them. We are all aware of his ability to cover extensive amounts of pitch, but as to how much opportunities will he get for doing so and how well he makes use of them, is yet to be witnessed. On the other side, how the Spanish giants use their 3 midfield spaces is also a curious case. They are a completely dfferent team with Iniesta, Busquets and Rakitic as compared to the one with Paulinho coming in place of Don Andres. At times they look more vulnerable with the ball as the game goes on late in the second half when Paulinho comes in. How well do the Chelsea ball winners make use of it, remains to be seen.
- Eden Hazard vs Lionel Messi:
You can’t help but bring in the discussion about this individual battle. These two are bloodlines of their team. They can score astonishing goals, they can break any defence with surging runs, they can supply key passes from anywhere and at anytime. The Belgian and the Argentine will be at the center of attraction in this one. Eden Hazard whose abilities were being questioned at the start of the season has catched up with his usual best and if Chelsea are to beat Barcelona then he would be their ace in the hole. Although even he couldn’t help but say about the man he would be facing on Tuesday, “Barcelona have a player who belongs to another planet.” There isn’t any introduction that does justice to Lionel Messi. We all know the central role that he plays in every single Barca attack while he is on the pitch. It is difficult to find a team on this planet against whom he hasn’t scored. Chelsea has been one of Messi’s biggest nightmares. In 8 games against them he hasn’t been able to open his account yet. The last time when these two met, the Argentine’s penalty hit the post and he was left distraught as he saw Fernando Torres round off Victor Valdes and score in the last minute to come back from 2-0 behind and win the tie 3-2 on aggregate. He would surely be looking to change the numbers this time around and to score at the Bridge might just be a sweeter feeling. All in all it would be yet again a no. 7 & a no.10 around whom the game would revolve.
The Tie Verdict:
It may be hard to believe for some that Chelsea might just stun Barca at the Bridge, if and only if the front three [Hazard, Giroud, Morata] work out well. But if we talk about the aggregate result, it is unless Chelsea give a miraculous performance or Barca have the worst of the times, that i can’t see why Barca don’t go through.