Although the Argentine star obviously presents a major threat to Antonio Conte’s team in Wednesday night’s second leg, Barcelona could easily progress without a significant contribution from Messi thanks to the away goal he scored at Stamford Bridge in the first leg.
That goal means tonight’s hosts would advance with a clean sheet whatever happens at the other end, and Chelsea will not find it easy to get past a goalkeeper who can stake a major claim for the status of the very best in the world: Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
The German international has been superb this season. The clean sheet he kept in Saturday’s 2-0 win at Malaga was his 17th of the league campaign, and he also added another five in the group stage of the Champions League – including both games against Juventus.
Although it’s true that in many cases the outstanding back four in front of ter Stegen has left him with little to do – such as the recent 1-0 victory over Atlético Madrid, when he only made one (very easy) save in the 90 minutes – the former Borussia Moenchengladbach man has come to Barca’s rescue on plenty of occasions as well, especially earlier in the season when his team was struggling for attacking fluency.
He has always possessed outstanding reflexes, which allow him to make breathtaking saves such as the flying leap to deny Juve’s Paolo Dybala in the goalless draw in the Champions League group stage.
In the early days of his Barca career, however, ter Stegen was guilty making silly errors through mental lapses – perhaps understandable for an inexperienced keeper playing in a team which regularly dominates games, meaning that the goalkeeper is rarely called into action and is therefore ‘cold’ on the few occasions he is forced to intervene.
The biggest concern about ter Stegen a couple of years ago, when he was elected by then-manager Luis Enrique to overtake Claudio Bravo in the Camp Nou pecking order, was that he took his ‘sweeper-keeper’ role too far and placed excessive trust in his ability to play the ball with his feet.
The criticisms were especially harsh after a game at Celta Vigo in October 2016, when Barca slipped to a 4-3 defeat after a disastrous performance from the keeper which included a gifted winner to Celta when a sloppy attempted pass was blocked.
Spain’s leading television pundit, the former Republic of Ireland forward Michael Robinson, memorably lamented: “He thinks he’s Garrincha. Who does he think he is with the ball at his feet? He’s not half as good as he thinks he is. It’s a serious problem.”
That harsh opinion was shared by many fans and pundits, with ter Stegen’s place in the Barca team being doubted by many outsiders.
Internally, though, there were no such concerns. Ter Stegen has always been trusted by his teammates and never came close to losing his starting spot to back-up Jasper Cillessen, but he has learned his lessons from the Celta debacle and never repeated that kind of error again.
Now, rather than being a dangerous liability, the German’s ball-playing skills are a major asset to Barcelona and an attribute that helps set him apart from his peers.
ter Stegen in La Liga and UCL this season:— Ter Stegen Stats (@MarcAndreStats) March 10, 2018
21 clean sheets (62 %)
15 goals conceded
0.44 goals conceded per game pic.twitter.com/Y4gdchKsKT
As good as they undoubtedly are, goalkeepers like David de Gea, Gigi Buffon, Thibaut Courtois and Jan Oblak – generally cited as the best in the world – would not be able to play for Barca because their ball-playing skills are just not good enough.
Being goalkeeper for Barcelona presents unique demands, with the ability to receive possession under pressure and make constructive and accurate passes an absolutely essential requirement for the role.
And in that respect, ter Stegen – now that he has cut out the kind of mistakes seen at Celta 18 months ago – is rivalled perhaps only by his compatriot Manuel Neuer, whose long injury absence has allowed the Barca man to claim Germany’s number one shirt in the build-up to the World Cup.
As a shot-stopper, ter Stegen might not be the very best goalkeeper out there – although he’s not far off. But when you also consider his ability to dominate the penalty area by claiming or punching away crosses and his Garrincha-like (apologies to Mr Robinson) ability with his feet, he’s the best of them all.
Neymar left the Catalan giants last summer for a record move to Paris Saint-Germain, who forked out €222 million on Coutinho’s fellow Brazilian. But rumours have surfaced claiming the forward is already regretting his decision.
Speaking at the presentation of the Mediterranean International Cup, compatriot Coutinho, who has since replaced Neymar at Camp Nou, said: “With Neymar, that’s life, but I have the same feelings as Rakitic.
“He is a great player. I play with him for the international team and it is a real privilege. It would be great if he came back and of course we would open the door to that.”
Messi’s first goal in nine games against Chelsea in last month’s Champions League last-16 first leg gives Barca a slender advantage ahead of Wednesday’s return at the Nou Camp.
Asked whether he can imagine Messi being prised away from Barca by a Premier League club, Busquets said the Argentina playmaker has few reasons to leave.
“I think he feels at home here,” Busquets said. “When you feel at home with all the things you have here – this is a big club, with good players next to you, you win different trophies, this is a good project, economically he’s doing well.
“All of this is positive. It’s difficult to find this in other places.
“We know the Premier League is a spectacular league. We would like to play there, but if you take all the positives and all the negatives, it’s very difficult to leave Barcelona.
“If you feel at home and you’re from Barcelona it’s difficult to change.
“To see him moving to another side, given all that, is very difficult. Getting out of here is difficult for most of us because we have everything.”
Messi last week became a father for a third time, missing the win at Malaga last Saturday as a result.
Busquets expects the Argentina playmaker will thrive against the Blues.
He said: “He’s going to be OK and more motivated than he usually is. He’s going to be more relaxed.
“I hope he’s going to be perfect and will play as he usually plays. He always makes the difference.”
Busquets added that Barcelona would settle for a goalless draw to advance to the last eight – and is wary of the Blues scoring.
“We don’t want to speculate, although 0-0 would be a good result. If they score we will be really suffering for that.”
He said: “We will try to find a secret formula. I don’t think we have it, but just to keep working, keep pushing, keep trying.
“(But) it’s a double-edged sword. We cannot be on top of them for the whole match, because the last season they were the team with the best counter attack in the Premier League.”
Willian scored in the first leg and has five goals in five games. Valverde knows the Brazilian is a danger for Barca.
“He’s been playing really great with Chelsea,” he said.
“He’s finding the back of the net easily. He’s a player we have to take into account. When players of that quality are on a good streak they can score easily.”