With the rampant nature of the Catalan giants both domestically and in Europe, the Spanish side seems earmarked for victory. Add to that the downhill nature in which Antonio Conte’s men seem to be headed for after a brilliant campaign last season, the scope doesn’t seem to be promising for the reigning Premier League champions.
Yet, for this very reason, the European title could be Conte’s sole hurrah this term, and despite seeming like a far cry, here are three ways in which Chelsea can be the team to progress to the next round:
1. Pressing Midfield
Chelsea’s shot at glory this season has been the manner in which their midfield performed on and off, which often masked the questionable tactics being employed at the back and the front. Against Barcelona, there is simply no question of whether or not this should continue.
With the options of deploying either Willian or Pedro in place of solely Fabregas, Conte will likely get the best results with the former. In that case, the go-to formation will be 3-4-2-1, which has served them better than 3-4-3.
This way, the Blues’ sole task will be to utilize their full-backs and midfield to constantly press Barca. If done right, the rhythm which Barcelona employ with thorough swagger will be disrupted quite well, and much can be achieved by the English side, particularly in the first leg.
But utilizing this tactic comes with the unsaid danger of not focusing on attacking ploys, which could be dangerous. By ensuring that his side finds an early goal in both legs, Conte can be safe from Barcelona taking advantage of a tired side late on in the games – something they’ve developed a knack for.
2. Exploit Barcelona’s Right Flank
There is not much that Barca have done wrong this season. However, much of their success has been reliant on the finishing of their final attackers, and as a result, a daunting flaw in their squad has often gone ignored.
Their right flank has several functioning issues. Despite boasting of the likes of Roberto, Vidal, and as of recent, Nelson Semedo, it just doesn’t seem to work as well as the rest of the lineup often does.
This was most obvious during their 1-1 draw with Valencia earlier on in the season ,and has made a reappearance in various other encounters as well, such as the 1-1 draw to Celta Vigo in the Copa Del Rey and the 2-2 draw against the same side in La Liga.
In all these cases as well as in matches where they were able to just steal a victory, the common theme is that the opposing side were repeatedly assaulting that flank after the flaw became obvious.
Chelsea could do the same and pressurize the Catalans by concentrating their ploys to this flank, forcing Valverde to either make some major shape-changing substitutions or to suffer the consequences.
3. Messi Malice
Messi has an oft-quoted bad record against Chelsea, with no goals being found by the Argentine in eight appearances. It is this that Chelsea must capitalize on, particularly in their home game. If they can ward off Messi by means of marking, the threat of Suarez, and potentially Dembele, won’t be that big.
Chelsea star Michael Duberry said it best when he stated to Express Sport: “It’s another tie against Barca. Messi is always dangerous and Barca have got huge names. It’s in their DNA how they play and in their DNA of being a big European force.
“It will be a tough tie, but I still think Chelsea have a great chance. Messi’s record against English clubs and Chelsea isn’t like ‘Oh my God’. They are the one team that can quieten him. You hope that continues and he doesn’t score.”
Of more importance is the role that Morata will play when Messi is kept neutralized. Taking advantage of what will hopefully be an offensive blur on part of Barcelona, the wing-backs must aid Morata and Hazard in a mixture of counter-attacking style of play as well as going deep into the Barca half.
This is a tactic that is tried and tested by Conte, and though physically demanding, it is the only alternative left against a side that will have the fatigue advantage.
All in all, the outcome will be determined by how Conte manages the fixtures that lie in between. Both the Manchester clubs are scheduled to lock horns with the Blues, and that is bound to take its toll on a Chelsea roster that is notoriously under-manned in key positions.
However, this might not be that big of a factor if Conte plays his cards just right. With United on the 25th and City on the 4th of March, and then Crystal Palace on the 10th, it will still be nearly 5 days before they travel to the Camp Nou for the final leg. As a result, the fatigue factor might not play as big a role as so many claim it to be.
A firm prioritizing decision must be taken over what is more vital for the side – nine possible points hanging in the balance, or the chance to give it all for a possible qualification. Knowing Conte, the thought of resting the few performing players will arise only after the first leg, and that might just prove to be the crucial factor in deciding whether they emerge victorious or not.