One of the world’s biggest clubs was in town on Tuesday night as Chelsea hosted La Liga leaders Barcelona in their Champions League Last 16 first-leg. The Premier League champions looked to have executed a perfect tactical performance as Willian put them one goal ahead before a poor decision from Andreas Christensen led to Lionel Messi’s first-ever goal against the Blues.
Antonio Conte unpopularly opted to play without a recognised striker, with Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the bench. Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro started as the front three and alternated brilliantly to trouble the Barcelona defence.
Willian strikes the post… twice
Plenty of Chelsea fans were fearing the worst against a team boasting Messi and Luis Suarez, among others. However, the Stamford Bridge faithful were treated to what was a top tactical showing from their Italian boss. They enjoyed the better of the chances and dominated the first half. It took just five minutes for Hazard to trouble Marc-Andre ter Stegen, unleashing a left-footed rocket from the edge of the box that was just high and wide of the target with Barca’s keeper at full stretch. Antonio Rudiger then saw his weak header from a corner dribble past the post.
The visitors then had their best chance of the half and it fell to former Tottenham midfielder Paulinho. Messi clipped a ball towards the Brazilian, who had the freedom of the Chelsea penalty area but could only angle his header wide as he looked for the far post. The game went relatively quiet apart from Marcos Alonso’s curling free kick from 30 yards that was comfortably saved by ter Stegen until Willian came alive.
The ex-Shakhtar wideman was the hosts’ brightest spark and he struck the post with a wicked whipped effort in the 34th minute that left ter Stegen absolutely beaten and certainly deserved to open the scoring. Just seven minutes later, Willian was kept out by the upright once again, this time, the other post. He ghosted past Sergio Busquets and crashed a thunderous strike past his opposing keeper and onto the woodwork. Hazard also came close before the break as he caught a bouncing ball beautifully from 20 yards out, rifling the ball inches over Barca’s crossbar.
Breakthrough then heartbreak for the hosts
While Barcelona continued to dominate possession, as they always do, they still failed to break down a very organised Chelsea side. As the Catalan giants looked to apply even more pressure, it was third time lucky for Willian, who finally found the back of the net from outside the box. The corner was taken short and Hazard picked out his mercurial teammate who managed to open a yard of space with a quick touch to his right-hand side before sending yet another curling drive into the bottom corner. A goal that was nothing less than he deserved to put his side’s noses in front.
This saw their opponents throw the kitchen sink at the Blues and set up camp inside their 18-yard box. This left them vulnerable to a counter-attack and that’s exactly what Chelsea did. Willian broke forward at pace after Hazard’s intricate flick and should’ve found N’Golo Kante, who had 20 yards of space around him. Instead, the Brazilian chose to hold onto the ball and lost it. In less than sixty seconds, he was made to rue that decision as Barca pulled level.
Rudiger could’ve conceded a free-kick or penalty after a risky pull on the back of Suarez’s shirt but as the referee waved away the Uruguayan’s protests, Christensen played a suicidal pass across the edge of the area. This left Cesar Azpilicueta in two minds and he went diving in to reach the loose ball before Andres Iniesta, which he subsequently didn’t make. The Spanish veteran took his time and picked out Messi from 15 yards out, who calmly slotted the ball into the back of the net, sending Thibaut Courtois the wrong way for his first goal against the Blues.
That vital away goal for the visiting side meant the game finished all square, leaving Chelsea – and Willian in particular – feeling extremely unlucky to not be taking a lead to the Nou Camp for the second leg. Conte’s side are now left with a huge task but, based on tonight’s viewing, certainly have a chance of progressing to the quarter-final. It’ll have to be a huge performance in Catalonia.