I know, I know there have been plenty of previews of the big game already and everyone is giving their opinion as to what can be done to beat Barcelona. The common theme between all is the fact that Barcelona are very beatable, they aren’t second in La Liga because they are invincible but because they are like any other team, fallible.
Very few clubs can claim to have a European rivalry but that is exactly the case between Chelsea and Barcelona, the two teams have played each other 10 times under the Abramovich era with both sides having won three games and competing in four more draws. Barcelona edging out the goals scored in the fixtures by the solitary goal.
The fixtures have generally involved great goals, great players and unfortunately some heroically bad refereeing performances. Yes, Mr. Ovrebo I’m looking at you!
Chelsea will have to take hope from Barcelona’s away form this season. It hasn’t been the best but nor is it something to poke too many holes in. However a win at the Bridge will mean more than most people think, of the last 15 semi finalist to win the first leg, 14 of them have gone on and to reach the final.
In all previous encounters with Chelsea, Lionel Messi has yet to register a goal or an assist. Let’s hope that continues, the Argentinian is on 63 goals for the season. Like him or not, that is truly remarkable. Whilst like them or NOT, Barcelona have scored over 160 goals as a team in the same time frame.
Chelsea this season have conceded the most and scored the fewest of the four semi-finalists but stats and records can be thrown out the window at this stage. Especially when Chelsea have looked rejuvenated at times in cup competitions under Di Matteo. Whilst the players who were here three years ago will want nothing but revenge.
Not to delve into the tactical side of the game too much in fear that I might create my own vocabulary of words that sound like gibberish and in fear of repeating the same things you’ve heard a million times over, I will however make a few notes on why I think Chelsea can overcome Barcelona and for the conspiracy theorist…UEFA themselves.
How to approach the game? Well, there a handful of options when looking at how other teams have had success against Barcelona. One thing is for sure, everyone knows how Barcelona will play, they play one way and one way only. They pride themselves on their ideal of ‘tiki taka’ football, their strength happens to be their weakness. Almost arrogant in the belief that their way is the best and only way to play, finding a way to stop it means they will not look for an alternative.
Barcelona along side with maybe the Brazilian national team are possibly the ultimate exponents of attack is the best form of defence. However Barcelona achieve this through their strangulation of possession, it is similar to the Spain method. The only difference being Lionel Messi provides moments of genius.
What the possession does cover is the lack of defensively ability found in their players. Recently Mascherano has been converted into a centre back in Pique’s absence, not one you would think would have much success if he was playing there back in the premiership. As for the man he’s replaced, well it was only by freak circumstances that his defending mishaps weren’t punished the last time he played against Chelsea. Outspoken right back Dani Alves, claimed that Chelsea played with ‘Fear’ possibly his way of trying to hide the fact that he is a truly average defender. He finds himself out of position on numerous occasions and relies on his pace to save him.
So how do you expose the defensive fragilities? Well, Bilbao at the San Mames done it by pressing Barcelona more than the Catalans tend to do to their opposition. They gave no time on the ball to any players and is the key when pressing Barcelona, it can’t be a half hearted effort, it has to be a team effort for 90 minutes. The method would likely have been how Villas-Boas would approach the game, it was similar to his philosophy. However his philosophy was evidently not compatible with this current crop so we can probably rule that method out.
We should probably look to the past for the answer, Chelsea have as good a record against Barcelona as any other club in Europe over recent years and it was achieved by allowing Barcelona the possession they so crave but to stifle any of their efforts with it. It was no more evident then when Hiddink was manager. For the best part of two legs, Chelsea dominated the game with very little possession. Creating more chances over the two legs and inevitably being denied by a late, late winner from Andres Iniesta.
So how does it work? Well it aimed at funnelling Barcelona’s efforts through the middle, especially those of Lionel Messi. The heart of the defence was Chelsea’s strength as was its central midfield. That last statement perhaps still holds true, but Messi will start the game down the middle as opposed to on the wings as he had done before. That however will benefit Chelsea as most teams have exposed Chelsea in wider areas. Barcelona aren’t likely to run down the wings and cross balls into the box, they aren’t going to win many aerial battles against a much larger Chelsea side. One plan may have been to deploy David Luiz on Messi but he has been ruled out the game after the hamstring injury he picked up against Tottenham. As for the midfield duo of Xavi and Iniesta, they were virtually man marked (Yes, the pair) by Michael Essien. Now, it is unlikely that he can replicate such a performance and probably won’t even start but now that Chelsea play a two man pivot, expect both players to press whenever the Barcelona midfielders pick up the ball.
Going forward it is fairly simple and straightforward, utilise the power and strength of Didier Drogba. His presence has tormented Barcelona’s defence in the past and he will aim to do so again, his hold up play will be vital in allowing Lampard, Mata et al. to get in to the game and create chances. The alternative is obviously Fernando Torres, whilst at Atletico he caused the Barcelona defence problems with his movement and if selected could do once again but it will rely heavily on getting time and space for Juan Mata to pull the strings, something that is unlikely to happen due to Barcelona’s philosophy when defending.
At the end of the day, very few will care what tactics are deployed or who is selected as long as Chelsea walk out of Stamford Bridge victorious. No, it won’t be easy. No, not many people expect Chelsea to win apart from the most optimistic of fans, which I include myself in. That said, hopefully I’m right but only time will tell.