Chelsea manager Antonio Conte faces a conundrum of balancing his tendency for caution with the English champions’ need to score to get past the might of Barcelona in the Champions League last 16 on Wednesday.
Conte’s plan to contain and counter-attack on the La Liga leaders nearly worked to perfection in the first leg three weeks ago as Willian put the hosts in front and also hit the woodwork twice.
But one Andreas Christensen error cost Conte’s men dear as Barca pounced for a vital away goal when Andres Iniesta set up Lionel Messi to finally net against Chelsea at the ninth attempt and give Barca the upper hand from a 1-1 draw.
However, whilst Willian shone in Conte’s strikerless set-up, Eden Hazard was unable to exert the influence he desires on the biggest stage in an unfamiliar centre-forward role.
“We need to repeat the game we played at Stamford Bridge and to try to exploit the chances to score,” Conte told Chelsea TV following Saturday’s 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, hinting that he will opt for a similar approach at the Camp Nou.
“It’s important to understand that we must be prepared to suffer, if we play with Hazard as number nine, or if we play with (Olivier) Giroud or (Alvaro) Morata as number nine and Hazard as number 10.”
Hazard certainly suffered when deployed once more in a central role as Chelsea were passed off the park by Manchester City in a 1-0 defeat nine days ago.
“When you leave the pitch you have the impression that you’ve ran [a lot], but that you haven’t played a game of football,” said Hazard as City recorded a Premier League record 902 passes and Chelsea failed to muster a single shot on goal.
“We could have played on for three hours, and I wouldn’t touch a ball.
“For me personally it’s difficult to play a good game when you only touch the ball three times.”
– Missing Morata -The root of Hazard’s discontent is Conte’s lack of faith in either club record singing Morata or Giroud, who was hastily recruited on the final day of the January transfer window as a more physical option.
Hazard’s best displays throughout his Chelsea career have come when playing off a focal point, most notably in two Premier League title winning seasons alongside Diego Costa.
A fallout with Conte meant Costa was hastily dispatched by the Italian at the end of last season despite playing a huge role in delivering the title.
Morata was bought to replace his Spanish international team-mate and initially struck up an excellent relationship with Hazard.
However, an alarming dip in form allied to injury problems has seen Morata make just one start in two months and fail to score since Boxing Day.
Likewise, Giroud has made just three starts and scored one goal since crossing London to join from Arsenal.
On the eve of the first leg, Hazard welcomed comparisons to five-time Ballon d’Or winners Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but admitted he had to produce far more on a consistent basis in the Champions League to justify such comparisons.
“If you want to be one of the best, you have to play well in the big games,” said the Belgian, whose contract expires in 2020.
But after Conte claimed playing in a more open style against City and Barcelona would be “stupid” given their superior quality, Hazard may be forgiven for wondering if he can realise his ambitions at Stamford Bridge should Chelsea fail to make the quarter-finals for a fourth straight season.
The race for the European golden boot could not be closer as Lionel Messi and four other hotshots are tied on 24 league goals each after the latest round of matches.
In the Premier League Mo Salah – following Liverpool’s disappointing defeat to Manchester United – and Harry Kane failed to add to their tally over the weekend.
Kane may in fact fall behind in the pecking order as he anxiously waits on the results of a scan from the ankle injury he sustained during Tottenham’s victory over Bournemouth.
Though Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain picked up wins, Messi and Edinson Cavani remained on 24 for the weekend.
PAOK Salonika have said president Ivan Savvidis is “preparing to take all necessary steps to protect the club” after their match with AEK Athens was abandoned in chaotic circumstances.
Greece’s top-flight football championship was suspended Monday, a minister said, hours after Savvidis came onto the pitch with a gun strapped to his belt.
“We have decided to suspend the championship,” deputy minister for sport Yiorgos Vassiliadis told reporters after an emergency meeting with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
Sunday’s Greek Superleague game was abandoned after PAOK had an 89th-minute goal ruled offside with the score 0-0.
Savvidis marched onto the pitch with images showing him appearing to be carrying a gun in a hip holster, and PAOK later issued a statement.
“After what happened today in Toumba Stadium, PAOK FC president Ivan Savvidis is preparing to take all necessary steps to protect the club and all his executives and associates from the threats and attacks they are suffering,” the statement said.
“More relevant announcements to be made shortly.”
PAOK are third in Greece’s top division and could have moved within two points of leaders AEK with a win.
Last month, PAOK’s league game with Olympiacos was abandoned before a ball was kicked.
Olympiacos coach Oscar Garcia, the former Brighton and Watford boss, was hit by an object thrown from the crowd, which was reported to be a toilet roll.