Over the past few seasons we have seen Barcelona revolutionize the game in a way that nobody has before. Their ability to retain an incredible amount of possession and slice up opposing defenses has gone unmatched by most teams that try to emulate it or defend against it. However, they are not invincible. Despite their mastery of the style, they remain a very one-dimensional squad and can be easily frustrated at times. The team with the most success against the Catalans has been Chelsea, as evidenced by their 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday. In a sense, they can be considered as the “nightmare matchup” for Barcelona.
The biggest issue I have with Barcelona’s squad players is the lack of a physical target man up front or in the midfield. On Wednesday, the tallest player on the field for Barcelona was Sergio Busquets. And we have all seen how he reacts to physical contact. Whether or not this kind of player would fit into the system is another debate entirely, but nonetheless it restricts Barcelona into a team that needs to play short, incisive passes through the middle of the field. In my opinion forcing them into wide areas makes them considerably less dangerous.
Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo definitely knows this. Previous Chelsea sides, especially in the two semi-final fixtures of 2009, deployed the same type of smart, compact formation that clogs up the middle of the park and uses physicality around the field to frustrate Barcelona. That team was a few controversial decisions away from advancing to the final in Rome. The Blues sat back and allowed Barcelona to retain possession in less than threatening areas, and then muscled them out when they tried to come towards the penalty area.
The same strategy was used last week. Di Matteo used Didier Drogba as the lone striker to try to wreak havoc against an undersized Barcelona backline, and then played five hard-working midfielders that would stay compact in the system. It’s hard to imagine a side seeing just 20% of the ball could win a match and keep a clean sheet, but it is exactly what Chelsea managed to accomplish. A good portion of Barcelona’s possession was spent well outside of areas that would be considered threatening, and they created a low amount of clear-cut chances for having 80% of the ball. The middle of the field was so congested at times that Barcelona were forced into trying to create chances with crosses into the area, and Chelsea were easily able to get those away. Of course they rode their luck with the two shots off the post and some poor finishing by Barca on a few occasions, but as they say, you make your own luck sometimes. Lionel Messi was kept bottled up by John Terry and Gary Cahill, and Barcelona lack another clinical finisher to put chances away regularly, as we saw Wednesday.
All it takes is one chance in a match like that to turn the tides, and Chelsea were able to take advantage of that chance brilliantly. On a rare Messi turnover in midfield, the creativity of Lampard, the pace of Ramires, and the finishing ability of Drogba combined perfectly to produce the winner. Victor Valdes has looked less than stellar in goal on more than a few occasions in the past, and probably should have done better on this particular goal as well. If you manage to force Barcelona into conceding possession, they are more than susceptible to being hit with quick, lethal counter attacks.
This Chelsea side has a great combination of players to try to finish off this tie in the Nou Camp on Tuesday. It will be extremely difficult, and the chances are very good that Barcelona will earn their way through to Munich, but I will give the Blues a fair shot at completing the job. Under Di Matteo’s guidance they have reverted back to the grind-it-out style that has given them success before, and whatever Barcelona does earn, it will have to be very well-earned. Here’s to hopefully another entertaining match on Tuesday.