Champions League, February 20 2018
An enthralling, exciting but ultimately disappointing Champions League night for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, as they let slip a deserved lead against the mighty Barcelona in this first-leg tie. Antonio Conte looked like winning the tactical battle when Willian, who had hit both posts during a brilliant first-half display, fired the home side ahead early in the second half. Seemingly endless Barcelona possession led to few precious clear openings, but a pair of individual errors – first from Andreas Christensen, and then Cesar Azpilicueta – allowed Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi to combine for the equaliser 20 minutes from time. It was the latter’s first Champions League goal against Chelsea.
Antonio Conte’s side adopted a 3-4-3 system in attack but spent a large part of the game in their 5-4-1 defensive formation. The superb pressing by N’Golo Kante in the centre of midfield, and a resolute Chelsea defence behind him, closed down Barcelona brilliantly. The depth and quality of their defending made it very hard for the visitors to go forwards and constantly forced them to play back to their centre-backs and goalkeeper, or to try and switch the play from side to side.
The back five, with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso dropping in alongside the three centre-backs, showed excellent concentration, co-ordination and communication, restricting the space on the inside and limiting the impact of Luis Suarez in particular. Cesar Azpilicueta stood out in this regard, his ability to track and mark Suarez as well as covering the runs of Andres Iniesta at the heart of his team’s defensive solidity. His one mistake unfortunately contributed to the Barcelona equaliser, diving in unsuccessfully to give Iniesta the opportunity to find Lionel Messi after an initial mistake by Andreas Christensen.
Going forward, Chelsea favoured combination play and almost tried to play Barcelona at their own game in playing out from the back. The midfielders, in particular Cesc Fabregas, took up intelligent positions and constantly provided outlets for Thibaut Courtois and the back three, while Eden Hazard regularly dropped back to offer extra support too. Victor Moses struggled to make any serious impact in his one-on-ones against Jordi Alba, but both Pedro and Willian – who hit the post twice before firing the hosts ahead – carried a genuine threat against flimsy marking in the penalty area. The visitors also suffered at set-pieces – most evidently with the corner that led to the goal, when Hazard found Willian in acres of space to drill home from the edge of the area.
Their counter-attacking tactics were simple: direct passes into the forward line or short passes to a nearby teammate in space who would then look to drive forward. Willian carried the greatest threat here too, although Barcelona mainly dealt well with these situations.