UEFA Champions League 2017-18: Can Chelsea eliminate Barcelona from the competition?
With the Champions League group stages concluded, attention now shifts to the knockout phase of the competition. The draw saw Chelsea renew their rivalry with Barcelona in a contest of which the Londoners will host the first leg in February of next year.
Barcelona, who remain unbeaten in La Liga this term, remain a fan-favourite after finishing top in their Champions League group that also included the German giants, Bayern Munich.
Many soccer pundits castigated the chances of any London team lasting in the European elite competition beyond February of the coming year. In fact, several have joked that Arsenal, who are taking part in the Europa League, are the one team that will remain in the continental competition from the English capital city.
Tottenham Hotspur, who were the runners-up in Premier League last season, are paired with Juventus in another Champions League match.
Strengths of Chelsea
Chelsea would go into the contest buoyed with confidence, considering that the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, Lionel Messi, has failed to score against the Blues in eight encounters. In fact, Messi even failed to convert a penalty spot in the last meeting between the two sides.
The match ended in a draw 2-2 at Camp Nou despite Chelsea finishing the game without their then captain, John Terry, who was dismissed. In that season, the West Londoners were the eventual Champions League winners after overcoming Bayern Munich in the finals at the Allianz Arena.
Chelsea will try once again to stop Messi from getting on to the scoresheet when the two teams meet in the double-fixture.
The Blues are fortunate to meet Barcelona at a time when Chelsea's starting XI is dominated by Spanish players who have had a successful stint in Spanish top-flight football. In fact, Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregas, who were once Barcelona players, are now representing Chelsea.
Other dependable Chelsea players from Spain are Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta, Alvaro Morata and Thibaut Courtois.
If you compare the Chelsea squad with Barcelona's, you'll notice that the English champions have more youthful players than the Spanish giants whose players are fast-aging. In Chelsea's regular starting team, there are only three players whose ages exceed 30 years, while Barcelona has at least seven players who are above that mark. The fact that most Chelsea players are young can propel the Blues into the quarterfinals of the competition at the expense of Barcelona.
Chelsea have already proved to the continent that they have what it takes to overcome a Spanish side, as they came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 in Madrid.
Atletico Madrid and Barcelona are the only two teams that remain undefeated in the domestic league this season. The fact that Chelsea played a big role in the elimination of Diego Simeone's side ouster from the Champions League would be enough to boost the confidence in Antonio Conte's camp ahead of the big clash with Barcelona.
In terms of the managers, Chelsea seems to have an edge over Barcelona with Antonio Conte appearing to be more successful in his coaching career than Ernesto Valverde. The Barcelona tactician has never won a league title with a team in the European top five leagues, and has only managed to win three Greek titles with Olympiacos during his two spells at the club.
Conte on the other hand won three straight Serie A titles with Juventus before joining Chelsea, when he won the Premier League in his debut season. Also, Conte served as Italian national team manager where he led his country to the quarter-finals of the Euro 2016.
The rivalry between the two European giants goes back to 1966 and has seen them lock horns on 15 occasions in the Champions League. Whilst Messi has a pathetic goalscoring record against Chelsea, the Blues are still looking for their first victory at Camp Nou.
The best result the West Londoners have recorded at Barcelona are three draws, with the latest one being the 2-2 in Champions League in April 2012. However, Barcelona has emerged victorious once over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, beating the hosts 2-1 in February 2006.
Even though Chelsea might be proud of possessing a massive number of Spanish players, Barcelona would feel that they have enough players who have had impressive careers in the Premier League. Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Thomas Vermaelen, Javier Mascherano, Paulinho and Gerard Deulofeu have all featured for Premier League teams in the past, so they are likely to be familiar with English football.
Whilst it is notable that most Barcelona players are getting old, we must remember that experience always comes with advancing age. Moreover, most players from Barcelona have stayed with their club for more than a decade, thus gelling well with any formation the manager may adopt.
Andres Iniesta, Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, and Jordi Alba were part of the squad that met Chelsea in the Champions League in 2012, while the Blues have only retained Gary Cahill and David Luiz from the team that attained European glory five years ago.
It may look like Messi is jinxed against Chelsea, but the Catalans have enough attacking options that are enough to cause problems to any defense. Interestingly, some pundits argue that Messi has no problem scoring against Chelsea, but his barren run is down to his bad luck against Petr Cech - who has since left Chelsea for Arsenal. If Messi fails to get goals, Barcelona can rely on Luis Suarez, Paulinho and Arda Turan to bring them.
Whatever the result, the contest promises to present a formidable side in the quarter-finals of the competition. The question remains if Messi will finally find the back of the net against the Londoners.
Also, will Fabregas and Pedro punish their former employer for selling them abroad?