Tomorrow night when Barcelona take on Chelsea at the Camp Nou it will be the make or break fixture in their season. Manager Pep Guardiola virtually conceded defeat to Real Madrid in the league after losing at home to Jose Mourinho’s team and now Guardiola’s Barcelona find themselves in unchartered waters.
His tenure at the club has gone swimmingly, having won the league in all three of his seasons prior to this one at the club and lifting the Champions League twice. Barcelona are in trouble with having nothing to play for after tomorrow apart from the Copa Del Rey against Athletic Bilbao.
Their back to back defeats (Chelsea and Real Madrid) is the first time it has happened since 2009 and it was in different circumstances then. Barcelona had wrapped up the league by that point before losing two games in La Liga. This is the only time under Guardiola where Barcelona’s mental strength will have been questioned.
In their last two games they’ve failed to take chances and have failed to look like the team that many claim to be the best team ever. Claims that they are missing a natural striker seem valid. With David Villa injured, Barcelona don’t possess what people would describe as the typical striker. Sanchez and Messi have led the lines through the middle but whereas Sanchez has a tendency to drift wide in order to spread the field, Messi has found himself dropping deep into the heart of midfield to get time on the ball but has resulted in no outlet ahead of him.
A sign of frustration on behalf of Messi? Possibly. He hasn’t had the service he has become accustomed to in the last two games and his determination especially against Madrid to run through their whole team may suggest that he is lacking confidence in those around him to deliver. Who can blame when you look at their scoring stats.
They may not be a one man team, but they have certainly struggled when Messi hasn’t provided the fireworks. He has scored a remarkable 63 goals this season but the next highest is Fabregas’ 15 who has struggled to find the back of the net since the new year. They may have to find an alternative to Messi though, the Argentinian has failed to score a goal in seven games and was crowded out in the first leg whenever he got on the ball.
So what has caused this? One argument will be the lack of depth in senior players, this season more than any other we have seen more and more graduates of La Masia propelled into the first team. The team have been hampered with injuries and after four seasons of constant challenging on all fronts for club and country, the efforts seem to have taken their toll. This will be a cause for concern to a team that is relentless in its pressing. Even more worrying for the Spanish giants was the news that Messi missed training yesterday as he didn’t feel well but he is however expected to be fit and ready and for the clash.
Continuing on the case of tiredness, the majority of their star players have played around 50 games over a course of a season for perhaps the past few seasons and played ninety minutes in virtually every game. Chelsea’s ‘Old Guard’ on the other hand have had only one member playing 40+ games this season and that is Frank Lampard who has made a handful of those appearances as a sub. The only other outfield players to have passed the 40 appearance mark for Chelsea have been Juan Mata, Raul Meireles and Branislav Ivanovic.
The game is also vitally important for Chelsea and whilst they like Barcelona also have domestic cup glory to play for, the Champions League signifies their best chance in returning to the competition for next season and after making eight changes for the weekend game against Arsenal, it is clear to see where Chelsea have hedged their bets.
Roberto Di Matteo has had the ‘midas touch’ since taking over from Andre Villas-Boas and fans will hope that continues. Having only lost one game since being in charge, Chelsea will be full of confidence going into the match in Barcelona.
As for the match itself, a lot of people have focused on the idea the pitch at the Camp Nou is vastly bigger than that at Stamford Bridge but don’t let myth cloud reality. The dimensions of Stamford Bridge are (103 x 67) whilst that at the Camp Nou are marginally bigger at (105 x 68). Hardly a differential to write home about and as showed at Stamford Bridge even when Barcelona do utilise the wide areas, they have a tendency to revert back into the middle of the field and rarely cross the ball in. Understandable without David Villa in the team, none of their forwards stand out physically nor are they known for their aerial prowess and won’t fancy their chances winning to many headers against the likes of Cahill and Terry.
Chelsea will no doubt look to set up in the same way and aim to frustrate Barcelona by not allowing any space between the lines and to force Messi deep to get a hold of the ball, relying on quick counters for their own chances, it is again a talking point as to who should start between Torres and Drogba and arguments have been made for both to be in the starting line up.
Barcelona are likely to have at least one fresh player for the game on Tuesday, defender Gerard Pique has watched both losses from the bench and looks set to return to the defence. He will add height to a very diminutive team and it is needed after Didier Drogba bullied the Barcelona defence when it came to aerial battles.
Chelsea are also likely to exploit the space down Barcelona’s right hand side again, Dani Alves will be given the freedom of the wing as usual but he does allow acres of space in behind and the Barcelona centre backs do not look comfortable when being taken on down the touchline.
There really is only one way Barcelona will be expected to play and that is how they’ve played every game under Guardiola, possession football will need to be translated into goals this time. It isn’t always the best team that wins or the team with most possession.
The stats are on Chelsea’s side. Barcelona have not defeated ‘The Blues’ in their last six attempts. Whilst any result Barcelona have managed against Chelsea they’ve managed during the Abramovich era will result in the Catalans being knocked out of the Champions League. It should also be noted that any time Barcelona has lost a leg of a semi-final in the Champions League they have gone on to be knocked out and perhaps the most reassuring of stats is that Chelsea are the only team Guardiola has failed to register a victory against in his time as manager. His failure to get the better of the side has resulted in him paying great respect to the Chelsea team and its players and maybe he does genuinely believe Chelsea are now favourites. Those in Spain suggested after the draw was made that people in Barcelona weren’t all too happy with the outcome and Wednesday would’ve done nothing to dispel those fears.
It won’t be easy. Barcelona will be focused on not letting another competition escape their grasp within three days, they have already sent a rallying cry to their fans in their latest video. They haven’t lost back to back fixtures at home in over 19 years and won’t be looking to do so.
Chelsea’s players meanwhile will be looking to complete their mission to avenge the controversial events that saw them crashing out of the Champions League at the same stage three years ago.
It is set up to be a brilliant Champions League night and the tie could go either way but there is no doubt greater belief amongst Chelsea players and fans that the task can be completed tomorrow night and that a trip to Munich and a place in the final of Europe’s biggest club competition awaits.