19:45 GMT, Wednesday March 14th, Camp Nou (Barcelona, Spain), BT Sport
After holding La Liga champions-in-waiting Barcelona to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea head to Spain on Wednesday in a bid to progress into the next round of the Champions League knockout stages.
Antonio Conte will be feeling aggrieved that his side don’t go into the match with a greater advantage after Willian, who always seems to excel on the highest European stage, hit both posts before scoring, only to see his goal cancelled out by Lionel Messi late on in the first leg.
The Italian will be hoping that he can emulate his compatriot Roberto Di Matteo, who dragged his team to a Champions League final win in 2012 in spite of the fact that his side were floundering in the Premier League.
This season, Chelsea find themselves outside of the Champions League places in English football’s top division and slowly drifting away from contention. As things stand, a Champions League title could be the only hope for Antonio Conte to see his team return to the top table of European football next season.
Barcelona, on the other hand, are flying at the top of La Liga, thanks to a 1-0 victory over closest challengers Atletico Madrid two weeks ago.
Unbeaten in La Liga, there is a sense that this is a new look Barcelona, with Ernesto Valverde emphasising pragmatism over the usually florid idealism that is concerned the Barcelona style of play.
With their away goal, the Catalan team are undoubtedly the favourites going into this one. However, as every Chelsea fan can testify, anything can happen in the competition.
Last Time Out
Barcelona 2-0 Malaga (La Liga)
With Lionel Messi missing due to the imminent birth of his third child, Barcelona made short work of La Liga strugglers Malaga on Saturday.
When Luis Suarez headed home a Jordi Alba cross in the 15th minute, quickly followed by a Philippe Coutinho heel-flick applied to an Ousmane Dembele pass, it looked as though the game could become something of a procession.
However, in spite of the fact that Barcelona went into cruise control and Samuel Garcia Sanchez was sent off for a dangerous challenge on Alba, the Blaugrana failed to score any more, retaining their eight-point league at the top of the table.
Chelsea 2-1 Crystal Palace (Premier League)
On Saturday, Chelsea laboured to another win in the Premier League, despite taking a two-goal lead within the first 30 minutes.
With Willian’s 25th-minute deflection being boosted by a Martin Kelly own goal, Chelsea then failed to score for the remainder of the fixture.
When Patrick van Aanholt scored in the 90th minute, Chelsea hearts will have been in Chelsea mouths but, in the end, Conte’s side came through unscathed and will be happy with all three points.
With Philippe Coutinho cup-tied, Valverde will be happy to have Andres Iniesta back from injury for this fixture.
Elsewhere, his team will likely remain unchanged from the side that took on Atletico Madrid two weeks ago, with Paulinho coming in to replace his compatriot. While Ousmane Dembele is now available on the right, Valverde should prefer the more defensive option that Paulinho presents.
But for Ross Barkley and Tiemoue Bakayoko, neither of whom were likely to be starters, Antonio Conte has a full squad to choose from.
The big question is who to play up front: an off-form Alvaro Morata or a limited Olivier Giroud? With Chelsea needing to score, expect Giroud to be given the go-head with the possibility of a two-player strike partnership remaining a possibility as the match goes on.
Key Battle: Sergio Roberto (Barcelona) vs Eden Hazard (Chelsea)
Having turned 27 years old in January, time is running out for Eden Hazard to put in the sort of performance on the European stage that will cement his place amongst the European elite.
Despite the fact that the Belgian is being touted as approaching a big move in the summer, this is the sort of stage that could convince one of the big European sides to put in a bid for him.
Hazard has been one of the few oases of hope in what has been an unusual season for Chelsea so far. With a degree of freedom afforded to him on the left-hand side, Premier League sides have struggled to contain him, giving rise to 11 goals and three assists in the English top division.
Sergio Roberto, then, will have his work cut out in tracking the Chelsea forward, looking to move with Hazard as he drifts through the half-spaces and into more central areas.
If he can do this well, Chelsea’s most threatening attacking player will be blunted which, on the balance of this season, could be enough to put the West London side out of the tournament.
To attack? Or not to attack?
Much has been made of Ernesto Valverde’s pragmatism through the first part of the season – a pragmatism that led him to playing Barcelona in a 4-4-2 for much of the season with Paulinho an integral part of the set-up.
Now, with Philippe Coutinho (who is cup-tied for this game) and Ousmane Dembele available for selection, it raises a question as to whether the Barcelona coach can afford to mix things up tactically and push for a more attacking brand of play.
Against Malaga at the weekend and without an about-to-become-a-father-for-the-third-time Lionel Messi, Valverde played his team in a 4-3-3.
Of course, why change a winning formula at this stage of the competition, especially in a game where you want to avoid conceding. However, it will be interesting to see if Valverde switches things up going into the game.
Can Chelsea’s system work?
One of the stories of this season has been the predictability of Chelsea’s lineup and the ease with which it can be neutralised.
Playing a 3-4-3, Chelsea have found themselves neutralised on a number of occasions simply by being matched player for player in a 3-4-3. With man to man coverage, the result is a snarling up of play in the midfield areas and an inability for the front three to find space against a back three.
In this game, with Valverde likely to play four at the back, Conte should try to get the most of a front three including Hazard, Willian and Giroud/Morata. Their only hope of a quarterfinal berth is scoring and so Chelsea should take the initiative early.
Prediction: Barcelona 2-0 Chelsea
Despite the promising performance of the first leg, it’s hard to see Chelsea pulling off a result in Barcelona. Expect Barcelona to score an early goal, hold Chelsea off and then score late on as the away side push for goals.
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