Barcelona vs. Chelsea: Do the Blues Stand a Chance?
Lionel Messi via CC BY-SA 2.0
Chelsea (+739) travel to Barcelona (-228) on Wednesday (3:45 p.m. ET) needing to score a goal to advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
A late error in the first leg of the matchup gifted Lionel Messi (pictured above) a goal and changed the entire complexion of the Round of 16 showdown. A 1-0 win for Chelsea would have meant that this week’s game would have played to their defensive strengths. Now, after the sides tied 1-1 in that Feb. 20 game, they’ll need to figure out a path to an away victory (or a draw while scoring more than two goals).
The problem for Chelsea is that their attack isn’t very robust. Their 52 goals rank sixth in the EPL this season, and even that total is somewhat beyond their 48 expected goals. That overperformance is almost all due to superstar attacker Eden Hazard, who has 11 goals from just under seven expected goals (or, excluding penalties, nine goals from just over five expected goals).
When facing strong opponents, Chelsea like to set up their very rigidly structured defense, let the other team have the ball and hope that their talented attackers can beat the odds and make something happen — even if they are consistently outnumbered. That strategy almost worked in the first leg. Chelsea took the lead thanks to a long-distance shot by Willian from a designed set play, his third dangerous long-distance effort of the game.
The problem is what happens when it doesn’t work. On March 4, Chelsea played another elite opponent, losing to Manchester City 1-0 at the Etihad. Just as they had against Barcelona, the Blues tried to play conservatively, focusing on defense first, second and third. But once they went down a goal shortly after halftime, they had no way of getting back into the match. They generated only three shots after falling behind (although they’d created a grand total of zero with the score tied, so it was an improvement) while conceding four. Even more damning, they completed only 189 passes while City completed 424. Chelsea’s defense is set up to prevent teams from scoring; it’s not designed to get the ball back.
In past seasons that might not have been a problem against Barcelona. Under former manager Luis Enrique, Barcelona took plenty of chances even when they didn’t need to score. A forward line of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar meant a near-constant attacking threat, and their best defense was a good offense. But with Neymar gone, new manager Ernesto Valverde has instituted a more conservative approach. Rather than being left to patrol midfield alone, Sergio Busquets often gets a partner now. Instead of a swashbuckling attack, Barcelona are more cautious with the ball. Oftentimes it’s left to Messi, with only Suarez in front of him, to generate the entirety of Barcelona’s attack.
Barcelona’s more conservative approach means that they can sometimes struggle to break down good teams, like they did against Chelsea in London. But it also means that they are exceptionally good at killing off games by keeping the ball and preventing opponents from getting shots. Their last match against a good team was a 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid on March 4. After Messi scored on a direct free kick in the 26th minute, Barcelona went on to outshoot (11-5) and outpass (315-279) the team chasing the game. They did to Atletico what Manchester City did to Chelsea.
Chelsea are unlikely to beat Barcelona. To do so, they’ll need to overcome their biggest weakness and break through Barcelona’s greatest strength. Chelsea will need to consistently take the ball away from a home side that has no incentive to take risks with it, and then break down a strong defense that has no reason to make itself vulnerable. It’s not impossible, but it’s not something this version of Chelsea has demonstrated they have very much ability to accomplish.
Top Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0