Barcelona v Chelsea: Conte’s men have their work cut out


The odds are stacked against Chelsea as Antonio Conte’s men prepare to take on Barcelona in a Champions League last 16 second leg clash at Nou Camp on Wednesday.

The Blues must go to Spain and get at least a score draw or an outright win to secure their place in the quarterfinals. It’s easier said than done.

Barcelona have looked near-invincible this season and an even tougher nut to crack on their own patch. They are unbeaten in the league after 28 matches and have not lost a Champions League match at home since the 3-0 defeat by Bayern Munich in 2013.

The goal Barcelona conceded in the 1-1 first leg draw at Stamford Bridge was only the second time their defence had been breached in the Champions League this season. Ernesto Valverde’s men do not only score goals for fun, they are also quite adept at defending.

While Barca look poised to dethrone Real Madrid as La Liga champions, Chelsea have already surrendered their Premier League crown with a whimper this season. Yet despite their contrasting fortunes on the domestic front, to suggest that there is a huge gulf between the two sides is to exaggerate. In fact, Chelsea have a slightly better head-to-head record against Barcelona.

The Blues have won 4, lost three and drawn six of the matches they have played against Barcelona in this competition. The Londoners also avoided defeat on each of their last four visits to Nou Camp so the venue holds no fears for Wednesday’s visitors. If Chelsea can preserve that record then they will have a chance.

But for the soft goal they gifted Barcelona, Messi’s first against Chelsea in nine attempts, the Blues would be going into the return leg with a handy 1-0 lead. Instead, the goal they conceded at Stamford Bridge means they have to score in Spain to stay in the hunt.

Chelsea followed up the first leg stalemate with successive defeats to Manchester United and Manchester City in the league. They made a timely return to winning ways on Saturday with a rather nervy 2-1 victory over Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace. It was the ideal preparation for the trip to Spain and will imbue the players with much-needed confidence for the battle at Nou Camp.

This match is something of a homecoming for Chelsea’s Spain internationals Cesc Fagregas, Alvaro Morata, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcos Alonso and Pedro, but without the red carpet. All the aforementioned with the exception of Morata started the first leg.

Morata is in direct competition with Olivier Giroud for the central striker role unless, as he did in the first leg, Conte opts to deploy Eden Hazard as the spearhead of his side’s attack for this fixture.

Barca warmed up for the match with a routine victory at bottom club Malaga on Saturday and did so without Lionel Messi, who missed the match for family reasons. The Argentina international is certain to return to the squad for Wednesday’s clash while captain Andres Iniesta also returned to training on Monday as he continues his recovery from a hamstring problem.

It will take a special effort from Chelsea to deny Barcelona an 11th straight quarterfinal appearance in Europe’s elite club competition.