Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has warned his charges against making the curtailing of Barcelona’s Lionel Messi a one-man job.
The two sides meet in an intriguing Champions League last-16 clash at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, which will be followed by a return leg next month. They are teams in very contrasting form, of course, with Chelsea struggling to hold a top-four place this season while Barcelona sit pretty at the summit of La Liga.
The question of stopping Messi is one that has boggled many an opposing manager’s mind. The Argentine, a five-time Ballon d’Or winner, has provided a talismanic presence in Barca teams down the years. In 2017/18, the pint-sized frontman once again tops the La Liga scoring charts with 20 goals and 11 assists. On their part, Barcelona are a strong favourite to clinch the Champions League.
One of the few things Chelsea have going for them in this tie is history. In what is surely one of the most bizarre stats in world football, Messi has never scored against the Blues. But man-marking Messi has seldom worked out well for Barca’s opponents, and Conte does not want his team to fall into the same trap.
“I hope to continue this tradition [of Messi not scoring against Chelsea] but I repeat we are talking about a fantastic player and we must have great respect,” Conte said on Sunday. “But at the same time we must try to be excited to play this type of game and this challenge.
Conte’s pre-match presser
“We are talking about one of the best players in the world but, for sure, we have to work together, work with the team and not only with one player to try and stop him. Because I think that when we feel this type of challenge to man-mark [a player], Messi can become very dangerous.”
Caballero’s two cents
Also offering advice on dealing with Messi was backup keeper Willy Caballero. The Argentine was part of the Man City team that beat Barcelona in the UCL last season, even saving a penalty during one of the legs. Simply put, if there was any stopping La Pulga, he would know how.
Speaking after saving yet another penalty in the Blues’ thumping FA Cup win over Hull City, Caballero echoed his manager’s sentiments, urging his teammates work together on Tuesday.
“He’s unpredictable. When you are watching a game on TV the commentator might say, ‘He’s going to do this or that’, but the reality is he is capable of doing things even better or faster or more unpredictable than people think,” said the 36-year-old.
“It is very hard work to control him but it doesn’t come down to a goalkeeper but the whole team. It is the coach who will decide how to plan for the game. Moreover, having players like Pedro or Cesc [Fabreas] who have played there [at Barcelona] we don’t need to discuss too much their style.
“Without doubt, for those of us that have played in La Liga we know more than enough about this team, it goes without saying what this team can do.
“It doesn’t matter if they change players or coaches, their way of playing remains the same. But it also means the way of causing them problems remains the same.
“It’s just a memory [beating Barca with Man City] and for sure I will be on the bench come Tuesday so maybe I can tell them what it’s like to beat Barca.”
The other encouraging factor for the unfancied Chelsea on Tuesday is their head to head record against Barca. The last 15 meetings with the Spanish giants have produced 5 wins, 5 draws and 5 defeats for Conte’s side.