Two old rivals meet again at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night when the Champions League resumes and Barcelona travel to London to take on Chelsea.
Despite having not faced each other in the Champions League in nearly six years, there was a period of time where there were two absolutes in football: if possible, Chelsea would be drawn against Liverpool in a domestic cup competition and Chelsea would be drawn against Barcelona in a cup competition.
It’s spawned a rivalry that has felt more favorable to Barcelona over the years, usually after seeing a Chelsea player sent to the dressing room during the course of the match. In 2006, Asier Del Horno’s sending off at Stamford Bridge put the Blues in a hole that saw Barcelona advance, and likewise in 2009, some questionable refereeing decisions in the semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge led to a 1-1 draw after Andres Iniesta’s goal cancelled out a Michael Essien wonder strike and sent the Catalans through on away goals.
But Chelsea have had some success in the face of adversity against Barcelona. In 2005, after Didier Drogba was sent off for two bookable offences in a 2-1 defeat in the first leg, Chelsea returned to Stamford Bridge and sent Barcelona out with a 4-2 win at the Bridge.
And in the magical season of 2012, John Terry was sent off at the Nou Camp, but Chelsea, having held a 1-0 advantage after the first leg, held firm despite quick goals from Sergio Busquets and Iniesta. Ramires chipped Victor Valdes just before the half and Fernando Torres scored a late second that will live in infamy, and Chelsea went on to lift the European Cup that season.
This meeting feels both similar, yet different. The systems have changed, key players are different, but Barcelona still carry that aura with them, principally provided by the genius of Lionel Messi.
It’s Messi’s brilliance that forced a tactical rethink in Barcelona this season after the departure of Neymar. No longer is it a guarantee that Barcelona will line up in their trademark 4-3-3, but rather Valverde has most frequently set them up in a 4-4-2 in order to keep Messi playing centrally off of Luis Suarez and because Barcelona are blessed with a wealth of depth in midfield.
It’s a tactical conundrum that Antonio Conte is going to have to solve. In big European matches this season, Conte has tended to play a 3-5-2 with Eden Hazard playing off Alvaro Morata. 3-5-2 might not be the best plan of attack because even in a 4-4-2, Barcelona like to have their fullbacks push high up the pitch. It runs the risk of isolating the Chelsea wingbacks and forcing them back, which is why it’s likely that Conte will play a 3-4-3, running the risk of being outnumbered in midfield.
The second question for Conte is how to deploy his attack. Barcelona in recent weeks have shown a weakness against sides that hold a solid defensive shape and counter quickly. Morata would fit that bill, but the Spaniard has just recovered from a back problem and made just two cameo appearances in his return. Olivier Giroud has started the last two matches and has excelled as a focal point in attack, but he does lack a little bit of quickness, though he makes up for it in his ability to hold the ball up and link play.
What is also being considered, but might fail spectacularly, is playing the trio of Hazard, Pedro, and Willian to provide that quick counter attack. The problem is that Hazard never looks completely comfortable in the centre forward role and really needs another attacker to be the focal point of attack.
Barcelona are still a big animal to tame in European competition, and in this case, the manager’s selections will have a big say in what happens on Tuesday night. The one thing Chelsea do not want is to be hammered at Stamford Bridge and be out of the tie before setting foot in the Nou Camp next month.