It’s going to be tense
FC Barcelona head into the second leg of their UEFA Champions League clash with Chelsea with two advantages despite the score being tied. One, they have an away goal. Two, they are at home. Still, this is finely balanced. One goal puts Chelsea in the driver’s seat, as they could even concede an equalizer and still be alive. And they have the chance of ending the match 2-2 and progressing on away goals. For that reason, they feel they’ll always have a glimmer of hope. Even if Barça go 2-0 up, there’s that chance, however remote it is, that Chelsea could nab two goals and go through.
The trouble for them is this Barça don’t concede much. After the Spanish Supercup, Barcelona have conceded 2 or more in one match only twice, and only once at home – back in February, a 2-2 draw with Celta. Chelsea’s more likely path is 1-0 or 1-1 + penalties, and for Barcelona to avoid those situations, they’d need two goals. Then again, Chelsea did well in the home leg, and didn’t concede many big chances bar one particularly silly one that led to a goal. So what’s it all add up to? Likely, a very tense, low-scoring match.
Assuming Andrés Iniesta is fit, Barcelona only have one spot in the XI that doesn’t pick itself. That one would go to one of Paulinho, Ousmane Dembélé, Aleix Vidal, and André Gomes. I talked about their strengths and weaknesses here. I see Valverde resisting the temptation to pick Dembélé and once again going with Paulinho. With Iniesta on the pitch, Barcelona will have to run more to make up for his age and perhaps a lack of top fitness. That’s worth it for Iniesta’s quality on the ball, but that may make Valverde opt for a defensively stronger option than Dembélé. Barcelona will likely once again have all the possession, although they won’t necessarily be in a hurry to score. Still, the pace of Vidal could be useful in defending counters. A change from the first leg is the Camp Nou’s wider pitch will suit Barcelona, as they try to unpack the middle. Perhaps it will give Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba more space to operate in. They were quiet in the first leg, but they are one of the Catalans’ main routes to goal – particularly the left-back.
Antonio Conte surprised many (including me) by not fielding a recognized #9 in the first leg, instead deploying Eden Hazard upfront. The strategy didn’t seem to pay off. Chelsea did score of course, but it had little to do with Hazard, who is certainly the team’s best player. On the other hand, they didn’t seem all that better once Álvaro Morata came on. Morata is not in form, so perhaps Conte will start Olivier Giroud. In the past 3 matches, he has gone with Giroud once, Morata once, and Hazard once. So who knows? However, given that Chelsea need to score, I see it as likelier that Chelsea will start with one of Giroud or Morata upfront (probably the Frenchman), and Hazard behind. There were reports that Conte was taking advice from players about tactics, and given Hazard’s public discontent about how Chelsea approached their loss to Manchester City, it sounds like Conte is going to field a #9. That allows Hazard to receive the ball facing goal rather than facing back, which makes him much more dangerous. Giroud, for example, will also offer an aerial threat and someone to win long balls and hold them up. The downside of that for Chelsea is they lose the industry of a player like Pedro, but maybe it’s a risk worth taking. Conte talked about how Juventus picked their time to blitz Tottenham Hotspur, and I see Chelsea doing the same. Looking for that moment to turn everything. Key moments to watch is right at kick off and then around the 65th-75th minute with a substitution.
The margins in knockout football are so slim that anything can happen with this tie, but Valverde’s Barcelona are a resilient bunch. They might have to “suffer” through this match, just as they suffered during the win over Atlético Madrid. But this is something the team is mentally prepared to do. That requires a high degree of concentration, but Barcelona are up to the task. More of a concern is if Chelsea lead. Does this team have other solutions besides the Messi card?