Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Hello Blueness My Old Friend
1. In 2009, one of the excuses that I and other Cules used to justify Barca's struggles against Chelsea was the fact that the two matches book-ended a La Liga-decider against Real Madrid. The same issue will exist this year, although Chelsea is similarly conflicted in that they played an FA Cup semifinal on Sunday and they have a big match against Arsenal over the weekend. Chelsea are currently fighting for fourth place, the last Champions League spot in England, and they know that attracting new talent to the squad is always harder when you can only offer the Europa League (and where your prior ability to dump bags of cash at the feet of new signings is constricted someone by FFP). In 2009, they were set, with little chance of winning the Premiership and almost no chance of missing out on the Champions League. The teams they played before and during the tie with Barca - West Ham and Fulham - were both cemented in mid-table places. Thus, both teams will have significant distractions and the playing field should be even.
2. At least that's what I tell myself, because the second possibility is that Chelsea are just a very difficult match-up for Barca. They have the defensive midfielders that Manchester United lack, so they can clog the middle and deny Barca the ability to play through them. It would be nice to say to myself "this is the Chelsea team that struggled so much over the course of the season, so they are clearly inferior," but that would only be true if Andre Villas Boas were still in charge. Roberto Di Matteo (or, if you are cynical, John Terry) has Chelsea playing in their more traditional, defensive style, which remains the right approach against Barca. Two banks of four without the ball and then long balls to Drogba with Mata, Kalou, and Ramires as the runners? That can work very well, as Cesc has fretted. (Kudos to the English rags for turning a statement of the obvious into some sort of insult.) Chelsea can pose a threat without taking too many risks. It's not the way that an expensively assembled side should play, but I've been saying the same thing for six years. The Blues are who they are. They tried to play a more aggressive, attractive style, the patient rejected the transplant, and now they are playing the way that gives them the best chance to succeed. It is what it is.
3. From the Barca perspective, I will be most interested in how the Barca front line stacks up against a tight, talented defense. Three years ago, Chelsea were able to negate a front line that had Eto'o in the middle with Messi on the right and Henry on the left.* Now, Messi will be drifting into the middle between the central defenders and the midfield. Thus, John Terry and Gary Cahill will be confronted with the choice of whether to step out and follow him (thus leaving space for runs for the left and right forwards; that dynamic has led to Messi leading all players in the five big European leagues in assists) or stay back, leaving Mikel and Lampard to deal with Messi. Assuming that Cesc and Sanchez are the forwards, they bring different dimensions as opposed to what Eto'o and Henry did. Sanchez is faster and Cesc has a better ability to link up with Messi than any other Barca forward has had.
* - Warren Barton hilariously claimed last night on FSC that Chelsea have always done well at denying Messi the space in between the lines. That's where Messi plays now as a false nine, but previously, he was a right winger who attacked fullbacks at pace instead of floating in the middle. Moreover, he was outstanding at Stamford Bridge in 2006, ripping Chelsea apart and drawing a red card that was a major event in the match. In fact, that match is generally seen as the instance where Messi announced himself to the world. Other than all that, you're totally solid, Warren.
4. From the Chelsea perspective, I'll be interested to see whether they will be comfortable with a 0-0. Milan got a 0-0 at home against Barca and then lost 3-1 at the Nou Camp, but Milan without Thiago Silva were also more defensively suspect than Chelsea. 0-0 wouldn't be a bad result for Chelsea, although as they showed in the second leg in 2009, they can play defensively and still create a ton of chances on the counter. Conversely, of the three crunch games that Barca will play in the next seven days, this is the one for which they will have the most rest. Do they view this as the chance to win the tie early so they can go for broke on Saturday and then have an easier time on Tuesday? Or do they conserve energy and accept a 0-0 if it is tacitly offered. (If Keita is in the lineup, then the latter is a distinct possibility.)
5. It's also worth watching Xavi's fitness. He is the player who makes Barca go, but he has been struggling with a calf/Achilles issue during the second half of the season. He was subbed after 45 minutes on Saturday with Barca trailing at Levante, a move that Pep said was strategic, but may very well have been to rest his fulcrum for the match today. Real Madrid are suffering because their key midfielder - Xabi Alonso - is running out of steam.* Will Barca show signs of the same?
* - It's interesting that Real Madrid are the deeper side than Barca, but Xabi Alonso has had to make 45 starts this year, whereas Xavi has made only 40 (and this is despite the fact that Barca played in two extra competitions and made a deeper run in the Copa del Rey). If Real's season comes unglued at the end, it may be down to the fact that Nuri Sahin never broke into the lineup to give Mourinho a viable alternative to Xabi Alonso.