The bar had been set. Liverpool and Manchester City secured impressive, swashbuckling away victories, Tottenham proved their superiority over Juventus, and Manchester United are the favourites in their tie against Sevilla. As unfathomable as it seemed, the Premier League champions were England’s odd ones out in the Champions League.
Barcelona are not the beast they once were, but they remain an excellent side. They hold a seven-point lead at the top of La Liga, had lost just one of their last 38 games, and arrived at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday the clear favourites. Plenty expected Chelsea to put up a valiant fight, but little else.
As it was, the only thing to fall short was the collective expectation of the visitors. Save for a spell of sustained dominance in the final 15 minutes, Barca were more ordinary than extraordinary.
For that, Chelsea deserve plenty of credit. They nullified Ernesto Valverde’s side for large swathes, forcing them into unfamiliar wide positions and counter-attacking with purpose when the opportunity presented itself. Barca’s first shot on target came from Luis Suarez in the 53rd minute; their second, and only other, was Lionel Messi’s equaliser. The hosts, on the other hand, provided a constant threat in the form of an inspired Willian.
Perhaps Antonio Conte overestimated his opponent. The Italian suggested that Chelsea needed to play “the perfect game” to secure a favourable first-leg result, but all the hosts required was organisation, a clear game plan and a collective concentration.
It was only when that last characteristic failed them that Barca were able to capitalise. Andreas Christensen, who had previously repelled everything thrown at him, lackadaisically played the ball across his own penalty area from the right-hand side, Marcos Alonso shepherded it along, Cesar Azpilicueta sold himself with aplomb, Andres Iniesta nipped in and Messi ticked another club off his extensive bucket list. Having confiscated all of Barca’s firearms, Chelsea proceeded to shoot themselves squarely in the foot.
Before then, this was the Blues at their best with Conte the ringmaster. The speculation that he would deploy Eden Hazard as a false nine was met with derision from both diehards and neutrals, and the sight of both Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud on the bench was enough to give any ageing pundit palpitations. The reality was that the Belgian, Willian and Pedro interchanged to almost devastating effect, and Barca struggled to keep up at times.
Conte’s other risk was to play Cesc Fabregas in a two-man midfield alongside N’Golo Kante, and yet the Spaniard was one of the game’s better players. His was a controlled, mature performance, balancing the near-constant search for an incisive pass with the sort of defensive responsibility he so often shirks.
For 75 minutes, it was a fine display, a script that Conte would have made only a few minor alterations to. Willian struck both posts in the first half before scoring in the second, and though this was framed as a battle between Messi and Hazard, the Brazilian demanded centre stage. He had four shots, created four chances and completed six dribbles – all were match-leading statistics.
That Sergio Busquets was Barca’s best player spoke volumes. Messi and Iniesta were constantly starved of meaningful possession before combining to feed the 2,000 travelling fans with the only scraps Chelsea’s defence offered. Suarez was conspicuous by his absence, and Paulinho brought a tear to the eye of any reminiscing Tottenham viewers with a nondescript display. There was no real creativity, a side devoid of ideas.
“I think we start this game as underdogs,” Conte said earlier this week, and that was a view no-one would have disagreed with at the time. But on this showing, Chelsea needn’t have embraced that role so happily. This was a beatable Barca, one the Italian confidently stated had “weaknesses without the ball” that his players should have looked to “exploit”. They did so on numerous occasions until the telling blow came from Willian. But instead of pressing home that advantage, they backed off, inviting more and more pressure until it eventually told.
This was a game to encapsulate Conte and Chelsea at their most frustrating. A draw at kick-off would have been seen as a fine result. It still is, and at least the trip to the Nou Camp should be far less daunting. But this feels like a wasted opportunity.