The Champions League semifinal draw between Barcelona and Chelsea promises to be an edge-of-the-seat encounter. While Barca are in red hot form, Chelsea’s revival under Di Matteo seems have to have taken a hiccup with their draw against Fulham. Nevertheless, the CL is a completely different battleground and it would be foolish to write Chelsea off .
So, lets have a look at where Chelsea need to improve and five things that they need to do to reach the finals.
1) Pump the ball into the box -No one expected Chelsea to progress after their 3-1 defeat in the first leg against Napoli. But they turned the deficit around at Stamford Bridge and one of the major reasons for that was they kept delivering crosses into the box. Three of the four goals that Chelsea scored in the second leg resulted from the constant barrage of crosses and Napoli had no answers to Chelsea’s aerial prowess. When you have someone like Drogba who can dominate any defender when it comes to aerial battles, you have to exploit it and Chelsea did exactly that. And they need to keep doing that against Barcelona too. Mascherano isn’t so good in the air and Pique is susceptible to his fair share of errors at the back. Valdes isn’t too comfortable either when the ball is played into the box. Ibrahimovic had given them a very tough time in the quarters and you can bet Drogba to do the same.
2)Defend deep -Villas-Boas generally employed a high backline which more often than not caused numerous problems for Chelsea defensively. Terry is no longer the defender he once was and Luiz has been very inconsistent. Barcelona are very good at exploiting spaces and with midfielders like Xavi and Iniesta who can deliver pinpoint passes anywhere they want, a high defensive line would only mean suicide. Inter Milan’s semifinal win over Barcelona in 2009 was an example of this. They defended deep and hardly gave the forwards any space. A master tactician that Mourinho is, he crowded the midfield so as to stem the creativity of Xavi and Iniesta and Barcelona just couldn’t get past their defence.
Chelsea too need to do the same and keep a constant check on the forward runs of Messi and Sanchez. Also, they need to defend narrow and not allow much to go through the middle of the park. In short, they need to suffocate Barcelona and make sure they don’t get the time they usually get when they’re on the ball.
3) Put Essien on Messi-The magician has scored 13 goals in the CL so far. He has been simply unstoppable this season and he seems set to break Gerd Muller’s record of goals scored in a single season. So, it is clearly obvious that Chelsea need to keep him quiet for as long as possible if they want to get anything out of this match and the only way to do that would be to man-mark Messi. Arsenal did a commendable job of it when they played them in 2010. Alex Song kept Messi in his pocket for most part of the first leg but couldn’t do so in the return leg at Nou Camp. Messi went on rampage and scored a brace that night.
Though it is easier said than done, Chelsea need to at least try marking him, to keep him out of the game and one player they can rely on for the job is Micheal Essien. Though Essien has been lacking match fitness, he is still one of the best defensive midfielders in the PL and he needs to be at his best in this match. And wouldn’t it be brilliant if he scored a volley similar to the 2008 semis against Barcelona again!
4) Exploit set pieces - Barcelona are not very good at defending set pieces, especially corners. They have been exposed during set-pieces time and again and Chelsea need to take full advantage of it. What Barcelona lack are good headers of the ball and except for Pique, they don’t really have anyone who could dominate set-pieces. With the likes of Terry, Ivanovic and Drogba, who can head the ball really well, exploiting corners and freekicks should be Chelsea’s main priority and they need to prepare well in training for that. Chelsea are much stronger than Barca physically and they need to capitalize on that. Chelsea have been scoring a few from corners in recent weeks which is a good sign. Ivanovic scored two against Villa, both from corners and has surprisingly scored five goals since March. He would definitely be the man to watch out for during set plays.
5) Play counter-attacking football -Barcelona have looked very vulnerable on the counter and a majority of goals they’ve conceded this season have been through counter attacks. AC Milan tried to do the same and they were successful to some extent, just that they couldn’t finish off their chances and eventually Barcelona made them pay. Inter Milan were excellent with their counter attacks during the 2009 semifinal. Sneijder, Eto’o and Milito were really quick on the counter and Barcelona were found wanting every time Inter started an attack from the back.
Chelsea too, need to take advantage of their pace upfront and try to break at any opportunity they get. Mata could provide the perfect pass to Torres and Drogba, both of whom are very lethal finishers. Though some might argue Drogba isn’t suitable for counter attacks, his physical presence not only intimidates the opposition defenders but it also adds another dimension to their attack. Torres has been in good form in recent weeks and he could well be the one who can make a difference over the two legs.
My probable line-up for the match would be –
B.Ivanovic(RB), G.Cahill(CB), J.Terry(CB), A.Cole(LB)
M.Essien(DM), Ramires(CM), F.Lampard(CM), J.Mata(AM), F.Torres(AM)
A narrow midfield would help them close down Xavi and Iniesta easily. Torres needs to play like an attacking midfielder, more like the way Rooney plays. Ramires and Lampard need to play box-to-box with Mata, Torres and Drogba always ready on the counter.
It certainly is going to be a fascinating duel between the two sides. The last time they met, Iniesta won it for Barcelona in the dying seconds. Chelsea will certainly be looking for revenge and it’ll be interesting to see how the two legs pan out. May the best team win!
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