Champions League

Conte Should Use Italy Blueprint To Beat Barca

 • by Adam Newson
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It’s a series like no other. One that has effortlessly blended intrigue, conflict, controversy, and so much more. If it were on Netflix, it’d be critically-acclaimed; a captivating drama for the ages.

We are, of course, talking about Chelsea versus Barcelona. A series that has had 12 gripping instalments with number 13 set to play out at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.

Their Champions League last-16 meeting has more subplots than a Game of Thrones episode.

Will Leo Messi finally break his duck against the Blues? Can the Catalans overcome the west London side without a controversial refereeing decision affecting the result? And can Chelsea reassert themselves in the knockout stages after a year away?

Those three questions, in particular, will be subject of much debate ahead of the contest. Yet nobody will have the definitive answer. Only at around 10pm U.K time on Tuesday evening will the story have been played out.

Heroes will have come to the fore. Villains too. And the hope is there will be a cliff-hanger ending, one that makes the audience desperate to see what unfolds in episode 14 at the Camp Nou on March 14.

So what of the main characters? Well let’s start with Chelsea’s brooding Italian. There is no doubt Antonio Conte is far from happy at Stamford Bridge. He has complained about the Blues’ lack of squad depth and his inability to persuade the hierarchy to spend money in January.

But while he may struggle to get what he wants in the boardroom, in his domain there are few better. The Italian is an excellent tactician, one who will relish the opportunity of outthinking and outsmart Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde.

“We have been analysing this team for a long time, we started one month ago,” Conte said. “We are speaking about one of the best teams in the world. We have to try to have the perfect game and to try to make the best decisions for this type of team.

“They have a fantastic characteristic with the ball, but they can have a weakness without the ball and we must try to exploit this.”

It’s little surprise Conte hopes to target Barcelona on the counter attack. He may even use the blueprint that helped Italy beat Spain at Euro 2016.

That day Conte’s side, set-up in a 3-5-2 system, had only 41 per cent of the ball, but they played effective counter-attacking football and ended up with more shots on target than La Roja and a 2-0 victory.

Conte could use the same shape against Barcelona. He has flitted between 3-4-2-1 and 3-5-2 this season, the latter often used in games against more difficult opposition.

Eden Hazard has often partnered Álvaro Morata up front but with Olivier Giroud now an option, Conte could play the two strikers together, as he did with Eder and Graziano Pellé for Italy.

That would allow the Belgian to float behind the duo. Chelsea’s shape would resemble more of a 3-4-1-2 with N’Golo Kanté likely to be partnered by another energetic midfielder, potentially Danny Drinkwater.

Chelsea, Barcelona, Team XI

However, that may weaken the Blues in the middle of the pitch, and that is where Barcelona do their best work in their 4-4-2 diamond. And the Catalans have something Spain did not at Euro 2016; Leo Messi.

He is undoubtedly the star of this. The headline act. The man whose name tends to be up in lights. And the Argentine has a score to settle against Chelsea. In eight matches against the Blues he has yet to find the back of the net. No other opponent has left him as frustrated as the reigning Premier League champions.

And there’s another layer of intrigue as Thibaut Courtois has also not conceded a goal to the Argentine in his last seven matches, which were played during his time on loan at Atlético Madrid.

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The closest Messi has come to scoring against the Blues was in 2012. He rattled a penalty against the crossbar in that famous 2-2 draw at the Camp Nou – the game that ended with Fernando Torres rounding Victor Valdés to score.

There were tears from the Barcelona No.10 after that game. So Chelsea should expect an especially motivated Messi to turn out at Stamford Bridge.

Stopping him is far easier said than done. However, only one side in Spain utilises a back three on a regular basis, so Chelsea will offer a different challenge to that Barcelona and Messi are used to.

In the heart of that defence will be Andreas Christensen and the young Dane will be vital in helping Chelsea beat the Barça press. He is exceptionally composed in possession and in the Champions League this season has the highest pass accuracy of any player (95.9 per cent).

If he is able to smuggle the ball into Chelsea’s attack, no matter if that contains Giroud, Hazard or Morata, then the Blues have the talent to hurt Barcelona. Of that there is no doubt.

The scene is set, and the star names and supporting cast confirmed. What we don’t yet know is the plot. There will be twists, turns and undoubtedly surprises. It’s set to be another thrilling instalment in the series that keeps on giving.

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