The Spanish champions-elect visit Stamford Bridge on Tuesday to take on a Chelsea side that are the underdogs in this tie but are not to be taken lightly.
When one takes a look at Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Eden Hazard, they are awestruck and wonder if they are witnessing a skill beyond words. Talent is bestowed and coupled with hard work it leads to great dividends. But with current Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, such a case was not to be. The former Juventus manager was one that lived by two words ‘hard work’, both as a player and as a manager.
Right from the day he arrived at Cobham, nearly every press conference that he gave revolved around the need to ‘work hard’ and that he did as he put a team that had finished 10th in the previous year through its paces. Fitness regimes and diets changed, tactics evolved and a new breed of Chelsea was born, one that revolved around effort. The move paid off as Chelsea returned to their title-winning ways under Conte and with a new playing style that other teams found tough to match.
Chelsea have not lost against Barcelona since 2006
This season, however, the team’s fortunes have changed. The consistency that led Chelsea to the title last year was missing as a thin squad struggled to maintain form across multiple competitions. With the Manchester clubs being able to make big money signings like Alexis Sanchez and Aymeric Laporte, Chelsea were no longer the club that splashed the cash like before. A move to a more sustainable business model saw Conte not being able to bring in the players he wanted. But if there is something the football world knows about Conte, its that he makes the best use of the squad he has and gets them to perform as a cohesive unit even if the odds are against him.
An example of this was the Italy team under him at Euro 2016. Pundits and Azzurri fans alike pointed out that this took the title of the weakest Italian team at a major tournament. What they got instead was a team that performed as a team on and off the pitch. Conte created an environment of loyalty, hard work and friendship that translated to a cohesiveness that other teams envied. The dismantling of Belgium and Spain were examples of how Conte can get his teams to perform at higher level. Players such as Marco Parolo, Eder, Graziano Pelle and Mattia de Sciglio elevated their games at the Euro finals when one thought they could not cope with the other superstars at the tournament.
This tie against Barcelona bears a strange resemblance to the Italian team’s fortunes prior to Euro 2016. They were written off, but surprised everyone to make it to the quarter-finals where they lost on penalties to Germany.
Barcelona are a formidable unit under Ernesto Valverde, who has moved on from the tiki-taka approach followed by his predecessors. They are a more defensively solid unit that still maintains the same core of players that brought them success before – ter Stegen, Pique, Iniesta, Busquets and Messi. They will fancy their chances against a Chelsea side that have just managed 4 wins in this calendar year. With the manager under exceeding pressure and expected to be sacked at the end of the season, the Blues are showing the kind of form that resulted in the 10th place finish in 2015-16 and the sacking of Jose Mourinho.
Barcelona have been in red-hot form this season
However, the noises from the Blues camp has been all but negative as the players have rallied behind their manager and are willing to fight for him till the very end, a trait that has brought the Chelsea teams of yesteryear much success. This along with Conte’s own fiery personality and tactical knowledge have ensured that Chelsea cannot be underestimated at any level in the tie.
With a solid 3-4-2-1 system that brought them the title in 2016-17, they are capable of playing a high-octane 3-5-2 system as well which gives them great tactical flexibility. With the recruitment of Olivier Giroud, Chelsea have a target man who can occupy defenders with his strength and bring the prolific Eden Hazard into the game, something that Diego Costa did with aplomb last year.
The high energy duo of Cesc Fabregas and N’Golo Kante will be crucial for the Blues to play their counter-attacking game, in a tie that they are expected to be playing with their backs to the wall. The return of young Dane Andreas Christensen could not have been more timely as he has been a player that has made vast strides under the Italian. At length, the team does have the material to go toe-to-toe with Barcelona on their day.
Chelsea fans can take heart from the fact that this season whenever there has been a doubt about the team’s form, the Blues have hit back with a resounding victory at home. Post the heavy second leg defeat to Roma at Rome, there was increasing negativity around the team’s form.
Conte turned it around with a convincing 1-0 win over their bitter rivals Manchester United. A similar situation is afoot ahead of Tuesday’s titanic clash in London. Wins against West Bromwich in the Premier League and Hull City in the FA Cup may have built some momentum leading to this tie. But like their manager, Chelsea would need that one quality in surplus that can help them get a positive result from this tie – Hard Work.