Monday 16 September 2019

Chelsea up against it but task not as daunting as it once was

Nou Camp return leg may not be a lost cause against Barca side that seems to be in decline

Thibaut Courtois is left helpless as Lionel Messi scores for Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Thibaut Courtois is left helpless as Lionel Messi scores for Barcelona at Stamford Bridge. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

There were no smiles as Barcelona celebrated their away goal in front of the Shed End at Stamford Bridge last night. No spontaneous outpourings of elation, no playful ruffling of hair, no gurning for the cameras. Just flinty looks and grim satisfaction, like family members comforting each other after a heavy storm.

And so if it was a curiously emotionless Barcelona that wrestled their way back into this Champions League last-16 tie, then it was largely in keeping with their comportment all night.

This, after all, is simply what they do. Barcelona turned up. Barcelona went behind. Barcelona scored. And then, their night's work done, Barcelona went home.

This was the performance of a side for whom even the most gilded of stages no longer hold much wonder, a group of players who have mastered the art of peaking 50 times a season.

They even seem to have mastered the art of rest and recovery in the middle of the game, occasionally slowing it to a walk, or seeing out long periods of aimless possession, confident in their ability to finagle a breakthrough.

Lionel Messi's goal 15 minutes from time ultimately vindicated them.

But with the exception of Luis Suarez, gnashing and sniping away on the shoulder of the last man, playing the pantomime villain to perfection, and Jordi Alba shuttling up and down the left wing like a man fleeing a swarm of locusts, there was precious little joy on display here, precious little relish, and at times a distinct shortage of ideas.

Chelsea may a daunting task ahead of them at the Camp Nou, but they will have seen nothing here to scare them.

Indeed, it was Chelsea who produced all the flair and energy, from the darting runs of Eden Hazard and Willian to the electric atmosphere.

"We hate Tottenham," Chelsea fans sang, to the presumed bafflement of their visitors, although you liked to imagine, 50 yards away in the centre circle, Paulinho singing along in his head with a satisfied smirk.

And after some fairly even early skirmishes, the game fell into that familiar pattern, the one where it is essentially Barcelona V: a training exercise, a shadow dance.

Chelsea simply became another Levante or Leganes, another team setting up with 11 men behind the ball, another set of moving cones to pass around.

One pass forwards, two passes back. At points, Messi could even be seen dropping into the No 6 role to get the ball.

Are Barcelona easier to set up these days? It's hard to remember, in recent years, a Barcelona team where the man in possession has so few options, unless you count lumping it up to Paulinho.

And it was the Brazilian who enjoyed perhaps Barcelona's best chance of the first half, a measure of just how little Barcelona were creating.

All over the pitch, Barcelona were being beaten to the punch. Andres Iniesta gave the ball away uncharacteristically easily.

Ivan Rakitic was categorically outpaced by Willian and forced to bring him down, earning himself a booking. Later, Sergio Busquets lumbered towards Willian as he curled the ball against the post. Sergi Roberto hashed a clearance. Gerard Pique forlornly went to ground as Willian smashed the other post.

Even Messi, who here again demonstrated his exquisite talent for running past the referee at just the right angle to turn him into a sort of shield, looked weirdly human, like a man who has played close to 800 professional games and now no longer remembers most of them.

A phoned-in Messi performance is still plenty good enough for most, but even on this most elevated of stages there was none of that pure, undiluted lust that often characterised great Messi performances, when he glides along the grass and the night throbs with pure possibility.

It was around the hour mark that Barcelona started to look busy. Unfortunately, by then they were already behind.

And even as the ball found its way out to Willian in space 25 yards out, it took Barcelona whole seconds to recognise the danger.

Rakitic jogged out towards him like a man investigating a strange noise in his kitchen. Busquets made the last-minute lunge. Both were too late.

The training cones had taken their revenge. As Chelsea celebrated jubilantly in front of the Matthew Harding Stand, Barcelona listlessly stared at their boots, avoiding eye contact. Only Messi, jogging into the Chelsea half to retrieve the loose ball, looked remotely eager to restart.

Stung into action, Barcelona stuck to their task, and eventually forced the error.

Iniesta beat Andreas Christensen to the ball, cut it back for Messi, and within seconds of giving the ball away, the entire complexion of the tie had shifted.

And you remembered in these few seconds why this is a side who are seven points clear in La Liga, still among the favourites to reclaim the trophy.

And so even if today's Barcelona are a shadow of their forbears, even if they occasionally seem like a team going efficiently and excellently through the motions - a Barcelona tribute band, a courtroom sketch artist's best impression of what Barcelona might look like - then there can be few quibbles over their effectiveness.

This is no longer a team who warm the heart and stir the loins. But even on an off-day, they can still cut you deep. (© Independent News Service)

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