How will Chelsea breach Barcelona?
While many Chelsea fans are no doubt currently wondering how their side will stop 63-goal Lionel Messi – plus his attacking colleagues Andrés Iniesta, Alexis Sánchez, Cesc Fábregas et al – their team’s chances in the tie could well be decided at the other end of the pitch.
If it is taken as a given that Messi will likely add to his 14 goals in nine Champions League appearances this season at some point over the two legs, then Chelsea will have to score themselves – and likely more than once. So interim Blues first-team coach Roberto Di Matteo’s biggest selcction dilemma is up front.
Didier Drogba made a statement with his performance against Tottenham in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final, especially when out-muscling former team-mate William Gallas and lashing in a superb opening goal. The ex-Marseille man was also superb against Napoli in the last-16, when his powerful early header was vital in overcoming a first leg deficit to progress. Drogba is now 34, but has terrorised Barca’s defence in the past, and has four goals in five Champions League games in 2011/12.
Fernando Torres was nonetheless preferred for both quarter-final legs against Benfica, and he duly laid on Salomon Kalou’s winner in the first leg. Also in Torres’ favour is his excellent record against Barca when at Atlético Madrid (seven goals in ten games), but despite some improvements lately he still has only five goals all season, and just two in eight European games.
Di Matteo’s choice may be influenced by the likely Barcelona defence. A mixture of injuries, tactics, form and illness means Pep Guardiola does not have a settled back line. His most regular and consistent defender has been converted-midfielder Javier Mascherano, who is excellent at covering and anticipating, but at only 1.74m a potential weakness in the air.
With Eric Abidal recovering from last week’s liver transplant operation, Guardiola’s other options are limited. Club captain Carles Puyol will likely play left-back, with 1.92m Gerard Piqué starting his first game since the quarter-final victory over AC Milan alongside Mascherano at the centre. Dani Alves is fit again, but is no aerial presence.
Chelsea will surely look to maximise this advantage at set-pieces, when defenders John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic (who both scored headers against Napoli) will rumble forward. Piqué and Puyol will be busy then, with the height of Sergio Busquets also required.
Drogba’s ability to physically occupy both Mascherano and Piqué in open play – winning free kicks or getting turned to drive at goal – could be one of the few areas where Chelsea have an advantage. Torres might be younger and pacier, but it is difficult to see him bullying anyone at the moment.
Di Matteo’s selcction of the Ivory Coast international against Spurs suggests he had already pencilled in Torres, but the Italian coach may be tempted to think again.
When the draw was made many assumed that an in-form Barcelona would easily outclass an aging and squabbling Chelsea but Roberto Di Matteo’s arrival in London has since given everyone a lift – five wins in six games is excellent form and John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba have showed they can still get up for big games.
But Barca will know what to expect. So, although Chelsea’s veterans will cause them problems, the Catalans should have too much. 2-1 Barca.