Proud Conte left to rue 'one mistake'
Chelsea 1 Barcelona 1
A long time coming you might say about Lionel Messi's first goal in the Champions League against Chelsea, although when you are up against the most formidable footballer on the planet, it is always a case of when, rather than if, and it was Antonio Conte's misfortune that it was this night.
"I think that it was very close, we made only one mistake. As you know very well, when you make a mistake against Barcelona - the best players like Messi, (Luis) Suarez and (Andres) Iniesta - you're to pay (for it)," said the Italian, ruefully, afterwards.
"It's a pity because I'm very proud of the players for the game and they followed what we prepared and planned. I also think tonight we were a bit unlucky...maybe we deserved a bit more."
Until that equaliser, the Chelsea manager had a one-goal lead to take to the Nou Camp and he looked a man who might be able to come up with a plan to win this tie against a team who have not lost a meaningful match all season.
Chelsea had around 25 per cent of the possession, even less than their FA Cup visitors Hull City on Friday, but what they did have they used well and, in Willian, they had arguably the game's most effective player.
The Brazilian gave Chelsea the lead after 62 minutes and everything he did had quality about it, because this was not a night for attacking players to stand around with their hands on their hips and complain about the lack of service. Willian worked hard for every chance, struck a post twice in the first half and buried his chance with his one decent sight of goal.
The worst part for Conte was that Chelsea gave Barcelona their equaliser with a monumentally risky pass from Andreas Christensen that caught his team-mates out and gave Andres Iniesta and Messi the opening they rarely miss.
They settle the tie in Barcelona on March 14 and one can only assume Conte will have to rely on more of the same - although he sounded a note of optimism among the 'what might have been' regret that hung around Stamford Bridge at the final whistle.
"I think in the second leg, we have to play our game against Barcelona. This team is very strong - a fantastic team - but I think the final result is open.
"It will be very difficult because it's not simple to play away against them but at the same time I think our performance must give us confidence," added Conte.
If 24 per cent possession sounds like very little at home in a Champions League tie then it looks even less in person, and that was Chelsea's role in the first half, a constant rearrangement behind a slowly advancing magenta tide.
It did not take long to settle into a familiar pattern, and that was the away team in control of the ball and Conte's team doing what they could to fill the gaps and close down the corridors of play. Of course that is not always possible when one is up against the best team in a generation and the best player in the world.
There were times when Messi bewitched Chelsea, in particular one shimmy that had Antonio Rudiger balancing on the wrong foot when Barcelona's No 10 glided past him. Messi turned and faced goal more times than Chelsea might be comfortable with, but he failed to carve them open before the break.
Within the first half-hour there were some periods that were painful for Chelsea for the paucity of possession they enjoyed, the count edging up past 80 per cent in Barcelona's favour at one point. Conte urged his side forward at those times, encouraging them to put pressure on the away team's back four.
Conte wanted the ball forward quickly and that often meant a big diagonal strike from Rudiger on the left side over to Victor Moses on the right. Most of the time it meant that the requirement was to get the ball into Eden Hazard and Willian, to try to stretch the defence.
The Brazilian was excellent, making a great deal of the little he had and striking both of Marc-Andre ter Stegen's posts at different times in the first half. The first was when Hazard dragged Barcelona's defence left after 33 minutes and then Willian took the ball in space in the middle and hit a right-footed shot against Ter Stegen's left post. He clipped the other post eight minutes later.
If Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic generally bossed the deep midfield and pulled the strings for the first half, the Croatian could count himself lucky that Cuneyt Cakir, the Turkish referee, was lenient. Rakitic was booked for fouling Willian on the half-hour, and there were two more fouls that followed which might well have merited a second yellow card if, one suspects, Rakitic did not have one already.
Having weathered the initial storm, there was not quite the sense of panic in the stadium when Barca continued to dominate the ball after the break because had not been able to prise Conte's formation open.
Barcelona were arguably at their least dangerous when they had a corner and it was from their corner that led to the Willian goal.
Thibaut Courtois again came out to claim the cross and dropped the ball quickly at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, from where it went left to Hazard, right to Willian and eventually Chelsea's corner was won on the left side.
It was Hazard who spotted Willian outside the Barcelona area in a promising amount of space, and it was Willian who stepped past Busquets and shaped a right-footed shot around a crowd of players and inside Ter Stegen's left post.
It felt what Chelsea deserved. Before the Barcelona equaliser Chelsea might have had a second when Willian, by then bloodied with a ball to the face, broke down the right and elected not to pass to his unlikely breakaway partner, Kante. The lead lasted just 13 minutes and it was Messi who finished, his 98th Champions League goal, and the first against Chelsea in nine games, from a pass from Andres Iniesta.
It was given away, from Christensen's ill-advised pass across the face of his goal that Cesar Azpilicueta was just inches from reaching. Instead it fell to Iniesta, who did what comes as second nature and squared the ball for Messi to slot past Courtois with his left foot.
He had his goal at last and Chelsea will do well not to pay for it with elimination next month.
© Daily Telegraph, London
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.