“I’ve never trained tactically as much as I have at Chelsea.”
For a man that has worked under Pep Guardiola and Vicente del Bosque, that was quite the statement. But Cesc Fabregas’ comments to MARCA highlight that, perhaps more than any other coach in Europe, Antonio Conte has the tactical wherewithal to get something from the Camp Nou on Wednesday.
The first leg of this finely-poised encounter ended 1-1 at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were the better team then, with Barcelona prevented from even registering a shot on target in a suffocating display from the home side.
The pitch in Barcelona is far bigger though and the arena much more intimidating. If the Blues are to get anything from this game, they must do the following five things.
1 Take the initiative
It’s a brave side that tries to match Barcelona at their own game.
Antonio Conte, however, can ill afford to do anything else in a game where his side have to score. Far better for his players to strike first, rather than concede and open themselves up for Barcelona to pick them off.
An early goal would knock chutzpah out of Los Cúles in front of a crowd not shy in getting antsy. With a narrow lead to protect, Conte could then close his team down and defend the hill.
2 Start Giroud
It’s reductive to label Olivier Giroud as a mere battering ram but his size and strength will be potent assets for a team that will depend on him to keep the ball.
With Barcelona likely to engage in spells of prolonged pressure, the Frenchman will likely contend for a few long balls, if even to give his side some respite.
Giroud’s ability to hold up the ball and bring teammates into play is arguably his greatest asset; his close-control and vision with back to goal have been clear throughout his team in England. He must bring it all to the table on Wednesday.
3 Man-mark Messi
Girona have been one of the surprise packages of this La Liga season and one of their star performers has been the on-loan Manchester City defender Pablo Maffeo. The Spaniard has been excellent for the Catalans all year but he shone particularly during a 3-0 defeat against Barcelona where, despite the scoreline, his marking had blunted Lionel Messi’s impact.
Chelsea should look to deploy a similar tactic against the Argentine on Wednesday. N’Golo Kanté would be the most able candidate but this would be to the detriment of a midfield that would have to rely on Danny Drinkwater in his absence.
One admittedly left-field option could be to deploy Victor Moses in the central midfield. The Nigerian might have little experience in that area, but he has the athleticism and work-rate to match Messi physically and could have enough to disrupt his game.
Such an option would cause the removal of Cesc Fabregas from the starting line-up but Conte may view this as a price worth paying.
4 Overrun Rakitić and Busquets
Barcelona’s fluid 4-4-2 under Ernesto Valverde might have run riot in Spain all season but the midfield pairing of Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic is decidedly lacking in pace.
One of Eden Hazard and Willian should be tasked with dropping centrally when not in possession, using their energy to and stamina to disrupt the home side’s passing rhythms.
It’s a thankless task – and one that players of their calibre may feel to be beneath them – but if they can steal the ball and turn on this exposed Catalan defence, they could get themselves that precious away goal.
5 Maximise possession
Unlike Barcelona sides of yore, Ernesto Valverde’s team places less importance on possession. Frequently this season, they have been happy for their opponents to have possession, confident that their defensive shape is robust enough to close down the passing lanes.
Chelsea, then, should expect to have the ball more than they might have done on previous visits to the Camp Nou. Maximising this possession and ensuring that it is used economically will be key. Conte’s side must get the ball to Hazard, Willian and Giroud as soon as possible.
It’s a big task to place such a creative burden on just three players but the first two have shown this season they are capable of starring on the grandest stage. For Hazard, in particular, this could be the night where he finally demonstrates that he’s ready to scuff at the ceiling separating him from talents like Messi and Ronaldo.
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