The stage is set. Barcelona need to win by a two goal margin to qualify for the Champions League final, Chelsea will do with a draw or scoring one less than Barcelona in a defeat.
Chelsea have had a perfect week, winning 1-0 at Stamford Bridge and then nullifying Arsenal at the Emirates despite playing their second-team. The star players are well-rested, they know the art of frustrating their opponent as well as they know themselves. Mourinho taught them well, and managers who have ‘continued’ with those principles have seen relative success at Stamford Bridge.
Barcelona on the other hand have had a horrible game. It’s the first time under Guardiola that they’ve lost two big games of such importance back to back, and against Madrid they seemed toothless for most of the game despite the odd foray forward or the insanely high (and completely useless) passing and possession stats.
And yet, for all the bullish talk from Chelsea and navel-gazing by Barcelona, nothing has changed. Barcelona always knew that they had to win at home to progress – they knew that they would need to win by a goal, probably two, with anything gained at Stamford Bridge a nice bonus. Chelsea on the other hand always knew that avoiding defeat at Camp Nou was central to their chances, and for them the job is far from done.
Guardiola will adapt his strategy to counter Chelsea’s approach to the game – not so much in personnel or formation but in how they go about attacking Chelsea. With a packed midfield / defence that is adept at dealing with crosses, Guardiola’s team need more creativity and focus in the middle, not width, to push through.
It means attacking Chelsea at their strongest point and finding a way through. Xavi is not likely to miss another sitter like he did against Madrid, Messi is a more potent threat at home and if Sanchez starts, there’s more opportunity for Barcelona to create and finish chances against Chelsea.
Some people have suggested that Barcelona need an early goal – perhaps, but it’s more important for Chelsea to start fast and try to nick a goal in the first 15 minutes, giving them an away goal and leaving Barcelona with three to score. While Chelsea will still be defensive, the threat of that goal will mean that Barcelona will be more measured in their approach, and
Chelsea are built to negate the exact qualities that Barcelona value – and this is a by product of Mourinho’s era. Even now, without the fast wingers and with the star players older and slower, Chelsea are well-equipped to hold Barcelona off for another 90 minutes.
For that to be true though, Barcelona will have to fluff their lines for a third game in a row. The higher they rise, the harder the fall, and a Barcelona defeat will have the critics out in full force – even if on balance, Barcelona have had a better season than Chelsea.
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