Chelsea v Barcelona: Four reasons why Conte's men can triumph
Alex Keble looks ahead to the Champions League clash between Chelsea and Barcelona on Tuesday, predicting a victory for the English champions...
"Valverde’s side tend to struggle against teams happy to sit back, as was shown in the 0-0 draw with Getafe and 1-1 draw with Espanyol this month, in which Barca held 9% and 74% possession respectively. Chelsea’s willingness to play like underdogs hands them a crucial advantage."
Chelsea welcome Barcelona to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday for what promises to be a fascinating Champions League tie - and one that might just surprise the neutrals. Antonio Conte's side have been battling with a mini-crisis this month while Barca lead La Liga and remain unbeaten domestically, and yet there is good reason to think the Londoners can progress to the quarter-finals.
Not only do Chelsea regularly transform into a more stable and confident side for big European nights under the floodlights, but their defensive tactical approach is perfectly suited to shock Ernesto Valverde's team.
Here are four reasons why Chelsea can beat Barcelona:
1) Conte's defensive formation will negate Valverde's possession football
The most notable difference between Valverde and Luis Enrique is the former's refocus on central midfield following three years of a more direct, fast-paced system. Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic have improved greatly under Valverde, while Paulinho's more aggressive style has proved a good foil for the two midfielders behind him. The reversion to midfield dominance has created a more measured Barcelona capable of controlling matches even when they aren't in particularly good form.
Unfortunately for the Catalans, this plays right into Chelsea's hands. Antonio Conte's negativity in 2017/18 has transformed Chelsea into a peculiarly cautious side that often fields as many as eight defensive players at once. For both legs against Barca we can expect Chelsea to play Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante in midfield, creating a deep-lying 5-3-1-1 that will refuse to allow Barcelona to pull them out of position.
Valverde's side tend to struggle against teams happy to sit back, as was shown in the 0-0 draw with Getafe and 1-1 draw with Espanyol this month, in which Barca held 79% and 74% possession respectively. Chelsea's willingness to play like underdogs hands them a crucial advantage.
2) Coutinho's absence leaves Barca stunted in attack
Chelsea's set-up wouldn't be too much of a problem for Barcelona were they in better goalscoring form recently. Valverde's side have scored just 10 goals in their last seven matches in all competitions, reflecting how difficult life can be for Barcelona when Leo Messi isn't firing on all cylinders.
Andres Iniesta's age has caught up with him while Neymar's departure has left a creative hole in the side. Ousmane Dembele and Luis Suarez are too direct to help break down those deeper defensive teams, which is why the club spent so much money bringing Philippe Coutinho to the club. His ability to pierce defences from within tight spaces - something Jurgen Klopp discovered this season when using the Brazilian as a false eight - will prove invaluable to Barcelona.
But Coutinho is cup tied for the Champions League, meaning the Chelsea midfield need only focus on Rakitic and Messi to keep the Catalans quiet. Conte's detailed tactical preparation should ensure he fairly comfortably stamps out the threat.
3) Chelsea have a brilliant record at Stamford Bridge
A narrow win and a clean sheet at Stamford Bridge would likely be enough to progress, and Chelsea fans will be pretty confident of succeeding in this task on Tuesday. Conte's side have kept seven clean sheets in their last nine home games in all competitions, letting in just one goal in three matches against Manchester United, Manchester City, and Arsenal.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have failed to win six of their last 13 away games in all competitions. Chelsea might have been stunned by a 3-0 home loss to Bournemouth this month, but their players have a history of performing above expectations in the glamour ties...
4) Chelsea's 2-1 win at Atletico shows their (selective) psychological strength
Player power has always been high at Chelsea, explaining their strange inconsistency in the Premier League; title wins are invariably followed by a psychological collapse the following season, while new managers always lead to a miraculous improvement. In short, the Chelsea squad are pretty fickle - but will turn it on for the big games, something Roberto di Matteo can attest to.
The most recent example of this phenomenon was the 2-1 win against Atletico Madrid, described by many as one of the most complete European performances in the club's history. The sheer determination and energy of the Chelsea side that day suggested a strong Champions League showing was on the cards. It also highlighted that some of the club's newer recruits are more comfortable in Europe than in England.
For example, Alvaro Morata, without a goal in any of his previous eight appearances, should perform better against an opponent he knows well from his days at Real Madrid. Similarly Tiemoue Bakayoko will be more at home when he plays in the second leg.