Fabregas displays fight above flair as Chelsea answer call for suffering
Cesc Fabregas' exasperation was obvious as the ball skidded away from him in the penalty area. First to Andres Iniesta, his long-standing team-mate with the Spanish national team, then to Lionel Messi, his old classmate from La Masia and Barcelona team-mate. He knew how this one ends.
Sure enough Chelsea had conceded an equaliser from the one genuine mistake they had made all night, Andreas Christensen's square pass bisecting Fabregas and Cesar Aspilicueta and ending, seconds later, in the Chelsea net.
But what made this away goal even more painful is that for so much of last night, Fabregas, Willian and their Chelsea team-mates did what Antonio Conte had demanded from them. This was not a night for possession, control, self-expression, and certainly not for fun. It was a night for discipline, defence, patience and ferocious hard work.
No-one had to deny himself more in this Chelsea team than Fabregas. He found himself up against his boyhood club and his former club, playing a tactical game that would have been utterly alien to him for much of his career. Fabregas was always a possession player at Barcelona, Arsenal and Spain, a man who treasured possession of the ball and was better at using it than almost anyone else. But if Fabregas wanted to try the expansive artistic football that he grew up playing, then he was on the wrong team. For Chelsea, the goal of game was always going to be suffering, as Conte put it on Monday.
And what was so impressive about the Chelsea players, whose commitment to the manager has not been blazingly obvious in recent weeks, is that tonight they all accepted Conte's medicine with masochistic enthusiasm.
This meant playing with no recognised centre-forward, with Eden Hazard as a false nine and runners from out wide. It meant defending for long spells in a 5-4-1, with everyone compact, just like a never-ending Conte training exercise against an opposition who do not even exist. It meant choosing their moments to press, when Marc-Andre Ter Stegen was kicking, or when they sensed weakness in the Barcelona backline to exploit.
There were times, watching this, when Fabregas looked slightly lost. The defensive side of the game has never been his strength and he can look fragile when good opponents run at him. He could certainly be harder to get past.
But despite these difficulties Fabregas and team-mates stuck to it and rode out wave after wave of first-half pressure from Barcelona. This is what made their second-half mistake so painful: they survived a far more difficult spell at 0-0. The fact that Barcelona, for all their possession, could only make one real chance in the first half is testament to Chelsea's defensive discipline. They did manage to do the hard work.
And while Fabregas was never going to see nearly as much of the ball as Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic or Andres Iniesta, his job was to use it as well as he could on the few occasions he did. The longer the first half went on, the more dangerous Fabregas looked, his instinctive sense of where Hazard was running in front of him always useful. When, just before the break, he overhit a pass to Hazard slightly over his head, he jumped up and down in the centre circle in frustration. Knowing that he may only need to land a success once.
Sure enough Fabregas made the difference early in the second half. Increasingly influential on the edge of the Barcelona box, his speculative shot forced the corner from which Willian struck in the goal that sent Chelsea into the lead.
That was the lead that Chelsea had worked so hard for, and deserved because of their mastery of Conte's plans. But the problem, as Conte predicted on Monday, was that the team had to be perfect in every aspect, all game. And the one killer slip they made in their own third with 15 minutes left has swung this tie decisively against them. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service