In the heat and intensity of Japan, Chelsea beat Barcelona 1-2 in the Rakuten Cup.
The Blues bested the Blaugrana in their third pre-season outing so far (it was Barça’s first). But what did we learn?
1. Regal Riqui Puig
Riqui Puig is a classic La Masia midfielder; short, silky and smooth. He’s got an absurd first touch, so delicate he could rob a diamond vault with no shoes and never leave a footprint. But he’s no dilettante, he will work hard defensively, snapping into tackles with a ferocity that belies his angelic visage. This was all on display against Chelsea out in Japan.
When you’re a young midfielder taking the field with Sergio Busquets, Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho, you’d be forgiven for not standing out. However, not only did Riqui Puig stand out against Chelsea but he was the best player on the pitch in the first half, by some distance, too. He span away from opponents, he won the ball back with targeted pressing, and he produced the moment of the half with a sumptuous backheel that almost led to an opening goal for Barcelona. He’s a genuinely special talent and if he’s not playing semi-regular first-team football for Barcelona this season then something will have gone very, very wrong.
2. It’s Tammy’s Time
The recent history of Chelsea’s no. 9 shirt has been less than stellar. It’s fair to say that since Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink left the club, things have been pretty bad for the legacy of that shirt. But have Chelsea finally found the answer? The cure to the curse?
Barcelona 1-2 Chelsea FT:
34': ⚽️ Abraham
81': ⚽️ Barkley
90': ⚽️ Rakitic
A win for Frank Lampard's Chelsea as they defeat Barcelona in Japan. pic.twitter.com/70cGoq6Q61
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) July 23, 2019
Certainly, the idea of home-grown Tammy Abraham, who has been at Chelsea since he was seven years old, being the one to finally do justice to the no. 9 shirt is idealistic. But on the basis of the friendly against Barça, it may also be realistic.
Abraham showed the kind of drive and intent that you need to and although he missed a sitter early in the first half, he didn’t let that get to him and kept on going. And so when he got another chance, he kept his cool, smoothly slipping the ball around Marc-André Ter Stegen and slotting home. His first goal of pre-season and an idea that he could be the man Chelsea need to break the curse of the no. 9 shirt. Others have tried and failed, but it’s Tammy’s time now.
3. Bob it like Barkley
Ross Barkley scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal with 10 minutes to go and it was the kind of hocus pocus that we all would love to see from the midfielder on a regular basis. He picked up the ball on the edge of the Barcelona area but Frenkie de Jong had rapidly closed him down so he couldn’t turn onto his stronger right foot. There was space ahead of him when Nelson Semedo didn’t close, so Barkley lashed out with his left foot.
He connected smack in the middle of the ball and it flew off his foot. Not across goal as you’d expect, but arrowed in the direction of the near-post. The ball wobbled, bobbed and dipped, fooling goalkeeper, Neto, whose dive came too late as it rippled the back of the net. It was a remarkable goal, perfectly illustrating why faith should always be placed in Barkley. Yes, he can be frustrating but he is a genuinely special talent, and those kinds of players need nourishing, not punishing.
Thankfully, Frank Lampard seems like exactly the right kind of coach to let Barkley soar.
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4. Barcelona’s Settled Signings
When you sign new players, there’s always a worry that they will take a while to settle in at the club. This is an even bigger issue for Barcelona, whose intense and specific style of play can often take years to understand. Eric Abidal was undeniably average for his first two seasons under Pep Guardiola but by his third was transformed into one of the team’s best players.
How fortunate for Barça, then, that their two new signings hit the ground running against Chelsea. Antoine Griezmann played the first-half and looked instantly at ease with the short, sharp passing style of the Blaugrana. His movement was bright and his link play with his new team-mates, in particular compatriot Ousmane Dembélé, was so promising.
Frenkie de Jong played the second half and was impeccable at the base of midfield. His touch was sharp and his awareness was quality. He constantly made the right decision in where to play the ball and what to close out (Ross Barkley’s banana shot being one of those things) and showed that he is very much already a Barcelona midfielder.
5. Chelsea’s new beginnings
Chelsea are in the Champions League this season but it would take a miracle ten times the size of 2012 for them to get anywhere near lifting it again. In fact, the Blues will probably be lucky to even make it back into the top four for next season’s Champions League. This is not a team that is set to easily transition away from losing Eden Hazard.
That said, it’s clear that Frank Lampard is not looking for a short-term, quick-fix solution. Obviously, the transfer ban prevents that, but one senses that Lampard wouldn’t opt for such a solution even if he had the choice. It’s heartening to see how comfortable Lampard is to rely on his young talents. Abraham wearing the no. 9 and leading the line, Mason Mount placed in “the Frank Lampard role” as a goalscoring no. 10 in the 4-2-3-1, Andreas Christensen wearing the no. 4 and firmly placed at the back. These players should form part of Chelsea’s new spine this coming season, a new era for a club truly in transition.