Champions League: Chelsea vs Barcelona – Lineups, Preview and Prediction
In one of the most eagerly-anticipated fixtures of the Round of 16, Chelsea host Barcelona at Stamford Bridge.
19:45 GMT, Tuesday 20th February, Stamford Bridge (London, England), BT Sport
On Tuesday, Antonio Conte’s creaking Chelsea team welcome a Barcelona side who are seven points clear at the top of La Liga for the first leg of the Champions League Round of 16.
On paper, Barcelona are the overwhelming favourites even despite the fact they do not have home advantage for this encounter.
In the last few weeks, it has become clear that something is rotten in the Borough of Chelsea. With Conte complaining about a lack of transfer funds available to him, it seems inevitable that the Italian will be gone by the time season runs to a close.
As is almost always the case, this lack of certainty at the top has bled into the team itself, leading to a series of poor results, most notably a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Watford, which has seen them tumble down the standings and put their Champions League qualification in jeopardy.
Barcelona, on the other hand, in spite of any doubts that had emerged in the wake of their Supercopa defeat to Real Madrid at the outset of the season, have ground out results through the course of their campaign.
Easing past Valencia to get into the Copa del Rey final in April, Ernesto Valverde’s team are also sitting pretty in La Liga, with a seven-point buffer between them and second-placed Atletico Madrid giving them the wherewithal to manage games in the Champions League should they need to.
The Blaugrana have a history against Chelsea, having been involved in some thrilling encounters with them through the years. Fans of the Blues will be holding onto the fact that Lionel Messi has never scored against them but, regardless, it seems unlikely that this will be enough to see them through.
Last Time Out
Chelsea 4-0 Hull City (FA Cup)
Chelsea only needed 45 minutes to put Hull out of the picture on Friday night as they booked their place in the quarterfinals of the FA Cup.
Two goals from Willian which sandwiched a finish from Pedro put the Blues three ahead in 27 minutes before Olivier Giroud made it four just before the stroke of half time.
This was more of an exercise in squad rotation: Antonio Conte rested Thibaut Courtois, N’Golo Kante Cesar Azpilicueta, and Eden Hazard before their Champions League fixture this week, giving his side every chance of coming out fresh on Tuesday.
Eibar 0-2 Barcelona (La Liga)
On Saturday, Barcelona beat Eibar to maintain their seven-point lead at the top of the table in La Liga. However, the 2-0 scoreline flattered them.
While it only took 16 minutes for Blaugrana to score – Luis Suarez latching onto a Messi through ball before rounding the keeper – Barcelona continued to labour for much of the game, ceding a couple of big chances to Eibar.
It wasn’t until the 88th minute that Barcelona put the game to bed, Jordi Alba slotting home after the ball came loose from a Messi one-on-one.
With Antonio Conte resting some of his first-team players at the weekend, expect a strong lineup on Tuesday.
Alvaro Morata is recently back from injury so it seems unlikely that he will get a start. Giroud will start as the lone striker.
Elsewhere, Pedro should start ahead of Willian and Danny Drinkwater should be preferred ahead of Cesc Fabregas as a more controlling option in the centre of midfield.
Thomas Vermaelen is the only player unavailable to Ernesto Valverde through injury. Philippe Coutinho is cup-tied, though, so Andres Iniesta will find himself on the left-hand side of the midfield.
Key Battle: Victor Moses (Chelsea) vs Andres Iniesta (Barcelona)
The logic behind Barcelona’s purchase of Philippe Coutinho was twofold: give the Brazilian six months to settle in before becoming a regular player and give Andres Iniesta a break in La Liga and the Copa del Rey, allowing him to be fully rested for the Champions League.
As a result, it will interesting to see how this works out for Barcelona going into the knockout stages.
Iniesta’s role in Valverde’s 4-4-2 is interesting. Not playing as a tradition left-winger, Iniesta likes to tuck inside allowing Jordi Alba to forage into the deeper areas on the left.
How Victor Moses negotiates this interplay between Iniesta and Alba will be interesting. In an attacking situation, the Barcelona 4-4-2 can look more like a 3-5-2 so Moses will need to know how to pass on players to the central midfield and the back three. If he gets this wrong, Barcelona could make hay on their left side.
Midfield two? Or midfield three?
Going into this match, it’s hard to see how Conte will line up his side. Given the fact that the Barcelona midfield is offset with Iniesta on the left, it could be wise for him to play with a three-man midfield, allowing him to bring in Cesc Fabregas in front of N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater.
This will allow his team to match up to Barcelona’s situational 3-5-2 and should make them better prepared to neutralise Jordi Alba through Moses, with the added benefit of Fabregas’s creativity.
However, the three-man midfield has been a tricky prospect for Chelsea so far, mainly thanks to the failure of Tiemoue Bakayoko to function within it. By electing to go with a midfield three, Conte is leaving himself without much cover off the bench so it’s likely he’ll stick to the two-man midfield and hope that they can match Barcelona man-to-man.
Messi to break his duck?
There should not be too much made of Messi’s career duck against Chelsea – Barcelona have enough in the bank to be able to break Chelsea without the Argentinian finding the scoresheet.
As Cristiano Ronaldo can testify, though, runs of goal-scoring can be helpful in carrying your side deep in Champions League competition.
If Messi can score against Chelsea, it would go someway towards helping his team pick up some momentum. However, Ernesto Valverde’s philosophy is built around the benefits of team play and so, perhaps, Messi should be looking to help his teammates score as much as looking to find the net himself.
Prediction: Chelsea 0-2 Barcelona
It’s hard to see Chelsea pulling off a shock at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. Of course, fans of the club will know better than anyone that the underdog tag suits them. But on this occasion, it would require an impressive performance all around.