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Messi Lionel

Barcelona avoid risks, seek balance and rely on Lionel Messi to break his Chelsea hoodoo


Records are there to be broken, and once again history was made with Lionel Messi’s name etched upon it. After eight games without finding the net against Chelsea, another domino fell, with his second-half contribution in London ensuring that Barcelona head into the second leg of their knock-out clash as favourites to progress to the next round.

If Barcelona cede too much control to Chelsea at Camp Nou, however, they could be put to the sword. The outcome at Stamford Bridge could have been different, with Willian striking the woodwork twice, before his third attempt nestled in the back of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s net. Ernesto Valverde’s side were nearly left with a considerable mountain to climb in Catalonia, but fortune smiled on the visitors and handed them a reprieve. A second chance was all that was required for Lionel Messi to pounce upon an error from the hosts.

Often, great teams are expected to press forth with their own plans and philosophies. Catering to your opponent is seen as a weakness, and yet Valverde’s eye for the detail is making Barca an interesting, malleable side in both La Liga and the Champions League. While in domestic action they have racked up some impressive score lines, in Europe they have been more cautious, risk-averse and measured. Thus far, it has given them the results they have set out for, with any grumbles about their style gazumped by their success.

Valverde has admitted to not making certain substitutions due to not wanting to leave his team light when defending corners, and the introduction of Aleix Vidal at Stamford Bridge raised eyebrows. After a dreadful performance from Paulinho, however, it was understandable to see the former Sevilla utility man thrown into the game. Risks don’t willingly find themselves within Valverde’s repertoire, not least when there are 90 more minutes to play at Camp Nou, a stadium in which only Getafe have truly been able to keep the Blaugrana quiet all season.

Chelsea showed that their pace and explosive forwards could cause Barca problems, however, with Eden Hazard, Willian and Pedro Rodriguez causing problems as a mobile front three. While Samuel Umtiti continues to show that he has all of the ingredients to remain a world-class central defender for many years to come, such pace and trickery was an issue for the visiting back four.

Sergio Busquets both dictated play and helped to hinder Chelsea’s counter-attacks, with the balance and control he offered in the centre of midfield invaluable once again. Even when those around him falter, Busquets has been a consistent, ever-present figure for Valverde, shuttling across to help slow breakaways while also setting the tempo at the base of midfield. It is this foundation that ensures that Barcelona will always be competitive enough in games to funnel opportunities Messi’s way, with the Argentine still their Plan A in the final third.

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While Luis Suarez has looked much sharper over the last two months and Paulinho has popped up with more goals than expected from midfield, even the arrival of Philippe Coutinho from Liverpool and the return of Ousmane Dembele from injury hasn’t shifted the status quo just yet. Sometimes, to their detriment, the Blaugrana look heavily reliant on Messi. Coaches have knowingly built around him for many years, with Valverde’s Barca seeking balance, avoiding risks and ensuring that they have sufficient control to feed him enough of the ball to make a difference.

Tuesday evening showed how little Messi can be afforded before making a key impact. Plenty was made of the fact that the Barca star was yet to tick Chelsea off his scoring list, and for much of the game it was he who gathered possession before suffering as his teammates were too static, with a five-man Chelsea defence posing them questions that they haven’t had to ponder all too often this season.

Getting into the half-time break unscathed at 0-0 was the best that Barcelona could have hoped for. Facing a system that was tough to break down and extremely explosive on the counter attack left them in limbo and a little uncertain, with the interval used as a chance to reshuffle and take stock of the situation. It was perhaps to be expected, given that Barca have now scored seven second-half goals during their European clashes this campaign, but Valverde again showed how being a coach’s coach looks to be a key factor as the season progresses.

After assessing the situation, while avoiding mistakes such as the one that Chelsea made to allow their opponent back into the tie, and providing enough controlled possession to ensure Messi had time on the ball to leave his inevitable mark, the second-half improvement came naturally. Even while struggling through tough spells, the opponent is never allowed out of arm’s reach.

Barcelona continue to grow in confidence, with Valverde’s changes always made in good time and with the right reasoning in mind. With their Argentine talisman, an in-form Busquets and an astute coach who knows when to make changes, there appears to be no limit to how far this squad can go in the Champions League. Their results have felt calculated and there has never been a sense of panic. While his teammates keep matches at a simmer, Messi can still be relied upon to add that special something.

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