Trophies are not handed out in February, which is something the Barcelona camp has been keen to emphasise this past week.
As another record fell before them at the weekend – a tough away trip to Eibar was navigated with a 2-0 win – Barça took their unbeaten run to 31 games in La Liga.
Pep Guardiola’s achievement with the Catalan side during the 2010/2011 campaign was matched in that victory, and it’s the exploits of the now Manchester City coach that will forever feel like the yardstick by which a current Barça side are measured.
Guardiola’s 14 trophies from a possible 19 looms large over whichever coach comes into the club – but don’t expect Ernesto Valverde to be intimidated. Far removed in terms of style from Guardiola, with perhaps only minimal similarities, the Basque coach has yet to put a foot wrong since arriving in the summer.
He even perhaps deserves a medal given the disarray at Camp Nou at both a playing level and internally when he arrived.
Valverde has been quiet, unassuming but also astute, diligent and above all well measured. He’s steered away from controversy and simply done what he always has throughout his career; got on with the job.
Though his surroundings are more illustrious than his previous roles, he’s approached the Barça post in similar fashion. His humility and work ethic has been a key factor to his brilliant time with the club so far.
The board is encouraged, fans are warming to him more each day and the players have clearly responded to Valverde’s approach. While he wasn’t the choice for many in the summer – Jorge Sampaoli seemed to be the frontrunner – the doubters have come around to his style of management.
While it has been impressive, now is where the going should get tougher. It is the business end of the season, as they say.
“What’s happened so far doesn’t mean anything, we know that it’s going to be really tough, that we have to be intelligent and that the tie lasts 180 minutes,” said Sergio Busquets, who highlighted the fact that despite an impressive season, there are still no trophies secure quite yet.
Rightly so too as it’s situations like this, records falling and wins coming frequently, that a side can switch off and become complacent.
Barcelona are experienced enough to navigate those factors, however, and also not to underestimate a Chelsea side who in contrast are experiencing a difficult season.
Antonio Conte’s men may be struggling to regain the rhythm that saw them charge to a Premier League title in 2016/2017, but they can take solace in the fact there are weaknesses within Barça to exploit – as difficult as that may be to believe.
Maybe it’s been a case of having an early eye on this fixture with Chelsea, but Barcelona have slowed in recent weeks, Back-to-back draws against Espanyol and Getafe in La Liga served as somewhat of a reminder that this juggernaut can be stopped at times. Sandwiched in between was a win over Valencia in the Copa del Rey as Barça booked a final berth, while this weekend Eibar were pushed aside in what was a tricky environment.
The games highlighted Barça’s vulnerabilities and while there are few, they do exist. The team is lacking considerably when it comes to pace and although their ability on the ball can help them navigate such an issue, they come unstuck when an opponent’s press and shape without the ball is correct.
Conte will have better players than those teams at his disposal, and put in the right areas they can hurt Barça. At times possession can be ponderous from Valverde’s men until the ball reaches Lionel Messi, who generates so much energy in the final third that defences can become bogged down.
Rather than carve you open at will , Barça now grind down and ebb away at defences before punishing them.
Chelsea will see more of the ball than many imagine too. Eibar showed at the weekend that’s the case and rather than gobble up possession, Barcelona feel comfortable enough to sit back and retain their shape in the new defensive structure put in place by Valverde.
It’s maybe the biggest input the Spanish coach has had since arriving at the club; teaching Barça that it’s okay to be calm and not chase everything. Instead they pick their moments and concentrate on remaining compact, solid.
With this in mind Chelsea must be purposeful with their possession. They can still expect a heavy press from Barça, that’s a core value of Valverde’s system, but if they can navigate that first line of it they can do some damage.
Cesc Fabregas, a former Barça student, intriguingly touched on this in the build-up to Tuesday’s clash.
“They try to put the first pressure very high, always work towards the ball. If we can get past this first phase and not put ourselves under too much pressure then I think that we can hurt them.”
It sounds simple but the execution is tremendously difficult. First a side has to navigate the press and then use the ball intelligently. Barça then leave the gaps in behind to exploit, often behind the full-backs, which Busquets and Gerard Piqué often must come out to cover.
This in turn draws them out of position and if Chelsea are pro-active and diligent enough they can attack those zones. While not quite a blueprint to success, it is something for Conte to use as a source of inspiration in the dressing room in terms of belief and proving the Catalans aren’t impregnable.
All-conquering Barça? Not quite. And that is why Chelsea can’t be written off.