On Wednesday, Barcelona face a Chelsea team in a game that will be the defining moment of the current campaign. With a spot in the Copa del Rey final sealed up and an eight-point lead over Atletico Madrid in the La Liga table, the Champions League is the most crucial competition.
Since the first leg at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea faced Manchester United, Manchester City, and Crystal Palace. The Blues fared horribly in Manchester with two straight losses by a goal each against their Manchester rivals. In addition, Chelsea scrapped by Crystal Palace with a 2-1 win. In all three games, Chelsea fielded a strong starting eleven, something that Barcelona didn’t.
While Chelsea only played three games, Barcelona played five. This may be worrisome, but Barcelona handily dispatched Girona 6-1 and against Espanyol and Malaga were able to rest key players. The most important player to Barcelona’s charge for the Champions League crowd was rested against Espanyol and Malaga, and single handedly won the match against Atletico Madrid. As we look forward to the Chelsea match, Barcelona fans can find solace in the fact that Ernesto Valverde is not pushing Lionel Messi to the brink of fatigue.
A key lesson to take into Wednesday’s match though is the form of Willian. The Brazilian winger has found his stride in the season, contributing the only goal versus Barcelona and Manchester United, as well as scoring against Crystal Palace. Willian’s pace is something Barcelona must be wary of, as well as his shooting touch. In the first leg, Barcelona continually gave the speedy winger too much room with the ball at his feet, and Willian punished us by hitting the post twice and scoring. If Barcelona want to continue into the quarter-finals of the Champions League, stopping the Brazilian will be as equally important as stopping Eden Hazard.
Another key lesson will be how Antonio Conte approached the first leg. From the beginning of the match, it was clear that the Italian manager had set his team up to counter attack. Even though Barcelona had 68% possession in the game, Chelsea created 10 chances to Barcelona’s seven, including Willian’s two posts. Leading via the away goal rule, Barcelona have to be careful to not send to many players forward that could leave them exposed to a Chelsea counterattack.
In all of Barcelona’s previous bouts with Chelsea in the Champions League, the games have been close and decided by a small goal margin. While Barcelona can expect to have a larger share of possession, being able to create a clear-cut chance early on is instrumental to their success. If Barcelona can score the first goal and force the Chelsea defense to open-up and press forward they will certainly have more success than in the first game. With a rested Messi and a squad still undefeated in La Liga, let’s hope our success continues into the Champions League. Visca Barca!