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UEFA Champions League: FC Barcelona vs. Chelsea FC: Match Preview

Leo Messi knows how important this match is.
Leo Messi knows how important this match is.

For the third time in a row, FC Barcelona play the most important match of their season. Chelsea are in town, and Barcelona must overturn a 1-0 loss in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal tie. If successful, Barça will have a chance to become the first side to successfully defend a Champions League title. After a disappointing 1-2 loss to Real Madrid on Saturday, the world will see just what this team is made of, and whether or not they can regroup quickly and regain their winning form. Chelsea, for their part, rested many of their starters from Wednesday, and played to a 0-0 draw against Arsenal over the weekend.

This match is a must-win by all accounts. With La Liga no longer an option, FC Barcelona's final chance at glory in 2012 lies in the Champions League. Granted, they'll have an opportunity to win the Copa del Rey, but there are few culés who would consider that trophy a measure of a successful season. This team is simply too good to be satisfied with anything less than a major addition to the Camp Nou trophy case.

Chelsea are similarly all-in, having fallen from contention in the premiership, and looking ahead only to the May 5th FA Cup final against Liverpool. Their traditionally strong Champions League form has continued, however, and considering owner Roman Abromovich's obsession with this competition, we know that the Blues will bring everything they've got on Tuesday night. It should make for one heck of a match.

Guardiola fielded a rather unorthodox 3-4-3 formation against Real Madrid, and came up short. All things considered, chances are we'll see a return to the 4-3-3. Barcelona can force overtime with a single goal, and advance with a 2-0 win. If Chelsea snatch another goal, however, Barcelona will be forced to win by two and there can be no chance at overtime. Guardiola will do everything he can to control this game, and that should mean a dedicated defender on each flank, and two sturdy center-backs in the middle.

Chelsea will most likely start much the same squad they did last week, including the deadly Didier Drogba, who rested against Arsenal. Clogging the midfield and playing for the counter worked pretty well in London, so expect more of the same in Spain. With the sturdy midfield trio of Lampard, Meireles, and Mikel, Chelsea will pack the center of the pitch in an organized fashion and force Barcelona out wide, trusting Ashley Cole and Ivanovic to stay home on the wings, and Terry and Cahill to clear off any crosses the Blaugrana can muster. It's going to be a tough nut for Barcelona to crack.

Fortunately for the home team, most everybody is fit to play. Besides the expected absences of Fontas, Villa, and Abidal, Pep will have a full squad to choose from. Keita, Piqué, and Alexis are all available, as is Ibrahim Affelay. While we won't likely see the Dutchman, Alexis is almost sure to start, and Piqué may get his first match action in quite some time if Pep indeed settles down with a sturdier four-man defense. Alves at right-back and Mascherano in the center are sure bets, with the only uncertainty being at left-back—with both Adriano and Puyol as viable options.

In midfield, Busquets and Xavi will feature, along with Iniesta if he isn't played up top. Fabregas was left out of the eleven against Madrid, and figures to find his way into the lineup tomorrow. Up top, Messi and Alexis will be joined by either Iniesta, Cesc, Pedro, Cuenca, or Tello. Considering the stockade of blue shirts in the middle, my hope is to see a true winger (Pedro, Cuenca, or Tello) on the left, Don Andrés in the middle, and Cesc on the bench. Considering Guardiola's love and warranted respect for Cesc, my guess is we'll see Iniesta on the front line, with Fabregas joining Xavi and Busquets in the middle.

Whoever gets the nod from Guardiola, they must play with confidence. Barcelona must come out believing in their superiority, and each player must receive and distribute the ball with the decisive and stylish touch we've come to expect from a colossal match at the Nou Camp. I've written before about the Camp Nou swagger—how an electric energy can build between these fabulous little footballers on their extra-wide pitch and in front of their 90,000 fans. Each successive successful pass contributes to this energy, and in time it can build to a methodical, mesmerizing demolition of the opponent. In Spanish and English the word is the same: "recital".

In Barcelona, winning is more than just winning; it's a performance, because football is more than just football; it's an art. FC Barcelona and its supporters get plenty of flak—some of it warranted—for a superiority complex. But I believe that this team, on a perfect night, truly does transcend football. I believe this particular group of players is capable of delivering a masterful performance the likes of which soccer fans have never seen. After three years and 13 titles, it seems Barcelona may be losing its edge, but tomorrow night they have an opportunity to prove they're still capable of their best football, and that they still define the pinnacle of the sport itself.

Visca el Barça!

Projected lineups:

Barcelona: 4-3-3: Valdes; Alves, Mascherano, Piqué, Puyol; Xavi, Busquets, Fabregas; Iniesta, Messi, Alexis

Chelsea: 4-5-1: Cech; Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Cole; Ramires, Lampard, Meireles, Mikel, Mata; Drogba

Final Score: 3-0 Barcelona, with two goals from Messi and a third from Xavi.

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