Barcelona. The Camp Nou. The magic. The history. An arena which last season saw the greatest comeback in the history of the Champions League welcomes the visit of a Chelsea side looking to keep alive a season which has faltered in recent weeks.
Chelsea match preview
With Antonio Conte's job on the line, we’ve already heard from him that this is a side which lacks the nous to do the type of job Juventus managed to do on Tottenham, one lacking in character, experience and knowhow which are so important in crunch games such as this.
But there’s always a chance. A slim chance, but a chance. And it’s that chance that adds to the anticipation of my first trip to the Camp Nou. I feared that the first leg would see the tie put out of our reach, making the second leg a formality.
However, we should really have won at Stamford Bridge, which provides some optimism and hope. If this fixture were played 100 times, I would probably expect us to qualify 10 times, which is indicative of its difficulty.
Barcelona have not lost in the leaguel all season, which shows that they are a machine-like side.
But Pep Guardiola’s side in 2012 were better than this. It wouldn’t be a trip to Barcelona without recollection of Ramires’ sumptuous chip over Victor Valdes, or Jose Bosingwa’s crusade to ensure he finished his career with more European Cups than eyebrows.
Or, of course, Fernando Torres rounding Valdes to secure the unlikeliest of final spots, Gary Neville’s interesting reaction and some incredible footage taken from the upper tier of the Camp Nou.
A special night which must inspire the current crop to create similar degrees of history for this club, even though there’s one man in particular who will still be smarting following his penalty miss in that game.
While this version of Barcelona is not a side with the flair, flamboyance and aura of teams gone by, any side boasting Lionel Messi is one to be feared. The Argentine is in his own backyard, the kingdom in which he has developed his greatness.
While he was largely nullified in the first leg, all it took was one moment for him to punish us. Mistakes simply cannot occur here with Messi, Luis Suarez and co good enough to break down the most resolute defence, having proven their immense qualities time after time, but it’s undoubtedly Messi who is to be feared most.
The greatest footballer of all time missed Saturday’s 2-0 win at Malaga for personal reasons, however, it’s highly likely he will return here to be the man Chelsea must stop if they’re to have any chance of progressing.
The 2012 semi-final was six years ago, but Messi will remember his penalty miss like it was yesterday. He will be desperate to make amends.
While the race for the top four is likely to go on for a few more weeks yet, it is in no way more exciting than the possibility of a deep run into the Champions League. Frankly, there’s nothing like the Champions League.
It’s a competition which brings ultimate highs and crushing lows. The season remains alive should we progress, but defeat will be like a pin popping a birthday balloon. Conte’s job is on the line, and he knows he needs a result.
This is an opportunity for Conte to make an inroad on the Champions League for the first time in his career by beating a genuine heavyweight in the knockout stages. He has to deliver tactically, and these are the games that top coaches pride themselves on getting right.
A difficult line-up to predict, with no inclination as to Conte’s gameplan. At some point on the night, we have to score, which theoretically should simplify the matter. However, Conte’s false 9 worked reasonably well in the first leg despite nullifying the impact of Eden Hazard on the game.
I want to see Hazard more involved, instead of playing the peripheral figure atop the attack as occurred against Barcelona and Manchester City, with either Olivier Giroud or Alvaro Morata starting up front.
Defensively, Conte has to choose between Antonio Rudiger or Gary Cahill, although I suspect the German will get the nod, while N’Golo Kante’s partner in midfield is anyone’s guess.
I would play Cesc Fabregas for his ability to create an opening in our need to score, however Conte’s pragmatism may err him towards Danny Drinkwater. 3-5-2 is also not out of the question, although I think he’ll opt for a 3-4-3.
Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger; Moses, Kante, Fabregas, Alonso; Willian, Morata, Hazard.
Betting tips and predictions
Unsurprisingly, the head and the heart have conflicting views regarding this one. The head thinks it’ll prove a step too far in our quest for European glory, with Messi scoring in a 3-1 defeat.
However, a 1-0 victory with a nice bus park and undeserved winner would be an incredible result, and probably represents our best chance of progression.
Get Chelsea to win 1-0 @ 21/1