If Antonio Conte was waiting for one ‘told you so’ moment to fling in Roman Abramovich’s face then Tuesday night produced it.
Then the lid came off via Andreas Christensen’s boot, Cesc Fabregas’ hesitation, and Cesar Azpilicueta’s lunge, as Chelsea proceeded to swat themselves in the foot.
The 1-1 draw was nevertheless a personal victory for Conte. The Italian extracted every drop from his players, but there’s only so much he could squeeze out of the inexperience that blights his squad.
Conte’s relationship with Chelsea’s board, at best, has been simmering almost since the day he arrived nearly two years ago because the club operate on a long-term view for everything apart from the coach.
The only men to have managed for longer than 100 games since Abramovich swept into west London in 2003 is Jose Mourinho (in two stints) and Carlo Ancelotti.
While the kings come and go, the empire keeps acquiring more glory, too: under Abramovich, Chelsea have never gone more than a season without collecting a trophy.
No wonder Conte is seen as expendable – Roberto Di Matteo, whose last stint in management was a wholly unsuccessful one with Aston Villa two years ago, managed to win the Champions League after all.
But that side did not need the ministrations of a world-class manager to become winners. Though hardly a vintage crop, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Dider Drogba and John Terry – except for the final – were its battle-hardened cornerstones.
In contrast, Conte has precious few old heads to lean on and the consequences of that took shape on Tuesday.
It is harsh to blame the 21-year-old Christensen for his blunder, having arguably been Chelsea’s best player this season. To include him in the same starting XI against Barcelona as 24-year-old Antonio Rudiger, who has as much composure as a chainsaw, was a disaster waiting to happen.
There were strong suggestions that Rudiger, who arrived from Roma, was far down on Conte’s wish-list over the summer. Imagine instead what Conte could have done with a leader like Leonardo Bonucci – who instead went to AC Milan.
Conte also failed in his pursuit of Juventus left-back Alex Sandro, who does everything better than Marcos Alonso except for taking a mean free-kick. Nemanja Matic was described as a ‘huge loss’ in centre of midfield after fleeing to Man United, and it was bizarre that a club of Chelsea’s stature did not make at least a half-hearted pursuit for Alexis Sanchez. Pedro would not have instilled half the amount of fear into his old club.
Just one or two of these types of additions would have given Chelsea a shot in the arm against a jaded Barcelona who are clearly not the ultimate force of old.
High up on chief transfer negotiator Marina Granovskaia’s check list, perhaps superceding all else, is resale value. After spending upwards of £160 million on Tiemoue Bakayoko, Danny Drinkwater, Alvaro Morata and Rudiger, all 27 or under, it’s unlikely she’d get anywhere near even recouping that amount.
With every superpower looking at least a shade below their best except for Manchester City, this was the season to reinforce wisely. Instead, Abramovich will have gone to bed on Tuesday night wondering just how wise his transfer policy is.
Argentina icon Lionel Messi denied Chelsea a famous victory with his first goal in nine matches against the Blues to hand Barcelona the edge in this engrossing UEFA Champions League round-of-16 opener.
Messi had been anonymous in a first hour dominated by Brazil winger Willian. He struck the woodwork twice, before finally slotting in from the edge of the box to give the hosts a deserved advantage.
But a defensive disaster on 75 minutes granted Messi the opportunity he craved, converting Andres Iniesta’s instinctive pass to claim a valuable 1-1 away draw.
Here, we analyse the performance of the Argentina superstar:
Goals – 1
Assists – 0
Shots – 1
Shots on target – 1
Touches – 94
Passes – 74
Key passes – 1
Dribbles – 1
Dispossessed – 6
Even on a quiet night, Messi reserves the right to be utterly decisive.
Was boxed in well by Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation and his mark for being dispossessed was four more than nearest Barca team-mate Andres Iniesta.
There was one warning sign for the hosts when he magically managed to create room for a cross early doors which Paulinho could not convert. Messi remained patient and waited to see if Chelsea would crack, Christensen’s unfathomable error allowing him the chance he craved.
6 - The six players with the most Champions League goals versus English teams:— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 20, 2018
Lionel Messi - 18
Cristiano Ronaldo - 11
Thomas Müller - 9
Rivaldo - 8
Samuel Eto'o - 8
Edinson Cavani - 8
AN ASSASSIN IN FRONT OF GOAL – There were few signs that goal no27 of another prolific campaign was going to be notched at Stamford Bridge.
But you can never discount Messi. Cold blood flowed through him in his only moment of opportunity.
One shot, one goal. Barca had found salvation from the usual source.
LOSING CONTROL – Messi can rarely be accused of being wasteful. This was one of those games.
Chelsea’s tactical plan worked a treat – it allowed him to run down dead alleys and they worked diligently to cut off out balls. In a team visibly lacking searing pace, this forced the great man to try and do too much himself.
He will need to be cuter in the tests ahead, if Barca complete the job on home soil.
15th min CHANCE CREATED: Messi’s generation-defining talent comes from his preternatural ability to conjure situations no other players can conceive, or achieve.
Stamford Bridge saw another example on Tuesday night when he took the ball under pressure on the edge of the penalty box and then exhibited superhuman peripheral vision to instantly cross from an unorthodox angle. But Brazil midfielder Paulinho could only head wide.
75th min GOAL: An invitation to score is never one that Messi will pass up. In his only shot of the game, he calmly stroked the ball past wrong-footed goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois at his near post, following a cataclysmic run of errors at the back for Chelsea.
Denmark centre-back Christensen first played a suicidal ball across the penalty box, before Spain utility man Cesar Azpilicueta belied his experience to charge out. All that was left was for the great Iniesta to play in Messi, who did the rest to end his personal drought against Chelsea.
Messi has played far better than this against Chelsea and come away with nothing, such as when he struck the woodwork twice – once from the penalty spot – in 2011/12’s classic semi-final.
His very presence causes concern and this was on show for his goal at the ninth time of asking against Antonio Conte’s men. Even though he’d been – by his ludicrous standards – invisible, not one person at Stamford Bridge doubted the result when Iniesta teed him up with 15 minutes left.
In the wider spaces of the Camp Nou and with Chelsea likely to be chasing goals at some point, more should follow in the second leg.
All statistics are compiled using whoscored.com
Lionel Messi finally broke his duck against Chelsea to give Barcelona a draw at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League round-of-16 after Willian had put the hosts ahead with a superb strike, while in Munich Bayern destroyed Besiktas 5-0 after defender Domagoj Vida was sent off after just 16 minutes.
Here are Seven Deadly Stats from Tuesday’s night round-of-16 matches:
MESSI FINALLY BREAKS DOWN THE CHELSEA WALL
After nine matches and over 800 minutes Lionel Messi finally scored against Chelsea. He has now scored against 31 of the 37 clubs he has faced in European competition.
How important could his 75th minute equaliser in deciding who goes through to the last eight.
Messi has scored 18 goals in 27 appearances against English sides in the Champions League, including eight in his past five.
Chelsea are the 71st club that Lionel Messi has scored against for Barcelona – he has only failed to score against 11 clubs that he has faced.
Messi is also now the all-time top scorer in the UCL round of 16 with 22 goals.
The Brazilian had an outstanding night constantly threatening the Barcelona goal. He had four shots, two of which were on target – the other two hitting the post, 25 passes with four key passes, six dribbles, 47 touches, 2 aerial duels won and was dispossessed three times.
In the lead up to his goal he hit the right post on 33 minutes then the left post on 41 minutes before finally getting his reward by sliding the ball just inside the right post in the 62 minute.
Six of Willian’s nine Champions League goals for Chelsea have come from outside the box (67%).
In fact, since joining Chelsea in 2013-14, Willian has scored more Champions League goals from outside the box than any other player (six, followed by Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar on five).
MULLER IS BAYERN’S SCORING CHARM
Thomas Muller netted two goals against Besiktas to bring his tally to nine this season in 28 games.
Only Cristiano Ronaldo (56) and Lionel Messi (38) have scored more goals in the Champions League knockout phase than Muller (21).
The 28-year-old is Bayern’s lucky charm as they are now unbeaten in 62 competitive matches that Müller has scored in (W59 D3).
61 - Bayern Munich are previously unbeaten in their last 61 competitive matches that Thomas Müller has scored in (W58 D3). Formality. pic.twitter.com/qkfzdn4Tgu— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) February 20, 2018
A QUIET NIGHT IS STILL A GOOD NIGHT FOR EDEN HAZARD
Played in an unfamiliar false No9 the Belgian had a quiet night by his standards, marshalled well by the constant presence of Sergio Busquets, but he still managed 54 touches, 35 passes, four dribbles, three key passes, two shots and one assist.
The assist means Hazard has now been involved in six goals in his six Champions League matches this season – three goals, three assists – more than any other Chelsea player.
Eden Hazard has now been directly involved in 6 goals in his 6 Champions League games this season:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 20, 2018
3 goals ⚽
3 assists 🅰️
More than any other player for Chelsea. pic.twitter.com/o5JLYli8k8
The German giants may have been aided by the 16th minute sending off Vida after a desperate challenge on Robert Lewandowski but its unlikely the score would have been much different even if Besiktas had their full complement.
In fact the two earliest red cards in the Champions League this season have both come away against Bayern Munich for fouls on Robert Lewandowski – Sven Kums for Anderlecht in September (11th minute) and Vida tonight (16th minute).
Bayern’s 5-0 victory was the biggest ever home first-leg win in the UCL knockout stages.
It was also Bayern’s 14th win in a row in all competitions – a run that equals the record set back in 1980.
MESSI’S GOAL DROUGHT IS OVER BUT LUIS SUAREZ’S CONTINUES
The Barcelona striker may have scored against Eibar on the weekend to break his La Liga scoring drought but his Champions League drought continues.
He has now failed to score in the past 881 minutes of play in the Champions League, his longest drought in the competition.
His last goal dates back to March 2017 against PSG.
CONTE ALMOST DELIVERS A MASTER CLASS
The under fire Chelsea manager Antonio Conte almost hatched the perfect plan at Stamford Bridge to keep the dangerous Barcelona strike force quiet.
His plan almost worked to perfect as he Barcelona failed to register a shot on target in a first half of a UCL game for the first time since February 2016 against Arsenal in London.
But unfortunately a wayward pass from Andreas Christensen, intercepted by Andrés Iniesta who set up Messi to score, undid all Conte’s well made plans.
In the end Barcelona had just seven shots with only two on target.
Messi only had one shot all night but that was enough to send Chelsea back to the Nou Camp with a vital away goal.