Well, technically they don’t have to beat them – any score draw of 2-2 or higher would see them through on away goals. If that sounds like a significantly easier task: it’s not. Barcelona have conceded 2 goals on just four occasions so far this season, twice at the start of the season against Real Madrid in the Supercopa de España when new coach Ernesto Valverde was still getting settled, and twice since.
One of those games since was away from home, so is irrelevant to what Chelsea have to achieve. As are the Supercopa games really because Barcelona now are vastly different now that Valverde has had time to mould them. The remaining game, however, was when Barça were held 2-2 at the Camp Nou by Celta Vigo. Precisely the kind of scoreline that would send Chelsea through (and exactly the scoreline that did send them through the last time they met Barcelona in the Champions League back in 2012).
So how did Celta pull it off? Well, they played well on the break and got very, very lucky. Their first goal was a counter-attack but when Marc-André Ter Stegen saved Maxi Gomez’s shot, the rebound flew right into the path of Iago Aspas for a tap-in. Then after Barça had levelled, they scored a perfectly good goal that was inexplicably ruled out for offside. They did eventually take the lead on the hour mark, but less than 10 minutes later Samuel Umtiti tore his hamstring chasing Iago Aspas, leaving the Spaniard to run free and play in Maxi Gomez to score.
Counting on the kind of luck Celta had isn’t really a gameplan, but there were lessons to be learned from their performance. So with that in mind how should Chelsea line-up? And how should they play?
Goal and Defence
Thibaut Courtois is the obvious choice in goal, and ahead of him in defence there’s no need to spring any surprises either. César Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger were all impressive in the first leg (Christensen’s mistake notwithstanding) and given Antonio Conte has frozen out David Luiz and Gary Cahill is a disaster, those three should also start again in Catalunya.
Packing the defensive trio in a narrow line across the width of the penalty box is a good way to ensure that Barcelona find it hard to create the passing lanes that they will need to get the ball into dangerous positions. They shouldn’t push high and they shouldn’t move wide, just patrol the width of the box and keep that area safe.
Whilst the centre-backs are protecting the middle, the wing-backs should protect the flanks. Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso again should retain their places from the first leg. Both are solid defenders and Moses in particular has the lightning pace to keep Jordi Alba in check. Both men would be required to stay inside their own half, with Alonso granted an exception for attacking set-pieces of course.
In the middle of the park, again Cesc Fabregas partners N’Golo Kanté. Ideally Tiemoue Bakayoko would be able to play but his adaption process is still ongoing and he’s nowhere near the all-star he was for Monaco last season. However because of a switch higher up the field, these two would not function as they did at Stamford Bridge, where Cesc Fabregas was part of a two-man squeeze on Leo Messi.
Here, N’Golo Kanté is tasked with a one man job on Messi. Not man-marking, but just to keep an eye on him and press him whenever he has the ball. Stopping Messi is key because he is the portal through which most Barcelona attacks flow. Fabregas would thus be on mop-up duty, and of course should use his great passing ability to hit the ball long to the strikers.
Here is where Chelsea should most imitate Celta Vigo. When they beat Barcelona, they did so with simple two-man counters. Chelsea should do the same with three men. Use Olivier Giroud as the target man, the pivot. The Frenchman is a powerful presence and excels both in the air and at flicking the ball on to team-mates.
So Cesc (and others) targets Giroud with long balls, and then Giroud in turn flicks the ball on to Eden Hazard and Willian. It’s a tough call to drop Pedro, who was so important defensively at Stamford Bridge, but Eden Hazard is Chelsea’s best player in terms of skill and Willian is Chelsea’s best player in terms of recent performances; so they both have to play.
And with Giroud taking care of the target man work (that Hazard so struggled with in the first leg) the Belgian would be free to drive at a Barcelona defence that is likely to be caught on the back-foot. Barça will have most of the ball so it’s likely that they may only have two or three players back in defence, especially if only Olivier Giroud remains high. Willian and Hazard should drop a bit deeper, with Willian perhaps keeping an eye on Sergi Busquets, but primarily they should be waiting for the ball to go over their heads to Giroud, keying them to make their runs into space and try to hurt the Blaugrana.
The there are three key players Conte can bring off the bench if things aren’t going his way: firstly Davide Zappacosta can come on for Victor Moses. With this change you lose the ability to cage Jordi Alba but you gain a supreme crosser of the ball. Zappacosta would greatly improve Chelsea’s chance creation ability, especially for someone as aerially devastating as Giroud.
The last two subs are more straightforward, with Alvaro Morata and Pedro able to come on for any of the forwards. The out-of-form Morata would be another big and potent goalscorer (who historically does well against Barcelona) whilst Pedro gives you improved counter-pressing and of course, sensational off-the-ball movement that the likes of Hazard and Giroud could make great use of.
All in all, it’s going to be a very difficult 90 minutes in Catalunya for Chelsea. But if they execute this gameplan then they can come away with a historic result and head into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.