Who will get the better of his opposite number? Ernesto Valverde or Antonio Conte? We’ll find out as Chelsea and FC Barcelona are set to compete in a tough UEFA Champions League tie.
Barça will play a 4-4-2, while Chelsea will line up in a 3-5-1-1 in all likelihood. Chelsea have other options, like 3-4-2-1, or even a straight up 3-4-3. There’s even a suggestion that Conte will play with two pure strikers upfront. But I see them taking the approach they’ve taken in the majority of big games this season, with a midfield five.
Barcelona’s lineup almost picks itself apart from one midfield spot, and who he picks will dictate what kind of style he favors.
It’s an interesting reversa: many La Liga teams are taking up 4-4-2, and it’s the Premier League that is full of three-man lines. This one will not be an exception for either nation.
On paper, a five man midfield has a man advantage to control the game, while retaining three defenders to mark two forwards. But the reality is Lionel Messi will drop off into midfield, evening up the odds for Barça. His movement will also make the three man line’s job less straightforward. Instead of having one player watch for one forward each, with another left to choose where to go, they’ll have a three vs. one that might suggest overkill, leaving spaces in other parts of the pitch.
In defense, Barcelona know the dangerman is Eden Hazard, and Sergio Busquets will usually be the man tasked with covering him. That leaves Gerard Piqué and Samuel Umtiti the chance to double up Álvaro Morata. Chelsea’s wingbacks will push up against the Barcelona fullbacks. With Ivan Rakitić, Andrés Iniesta, and one other midfielder, Barça can cover three of the four other players. Chelsea could potentially have a free man on the ball, Barça just have to make sure it’s not Cesc Fàbregas.
It will be interesting to what extent the tie reverts to the stereotypical Chelsea vs. Barcelona game, where the Blues sit back and counter. Valverde’s Barcelona are a different beast. They play 4-4-2. not 4-3-3. They press, of course, and hold possession, too, but less than past Barça sides. This is a Barcelona team that knows how to soak up pressure and knows how to “suffer” without conceding. They can retreat into two banks of four, and with Umtiti and not Mascherano at the back, they can handle aerial threats such as Morata Olivier Giroud (possibly coming off the bench) much better.
This match should still follow that pattern, albeit possibly to a lesser extent. Barcelona will try to work the ball slowly to create high quality chances. Chelsea will try to defend deep and launch counter attacks, using the pace of their wingbacks, Cesc’s ability to pick out a pass, and Hazard’s skill on the ball.
Those wingbacks present a unique challenge and one wonders whether Valverde may have considered Nélson Semedo as a starter given his speed, were he not serving a yellow card ban. Valverde can still choose someone with pace and stamina, such as André Gomes or Aleix Vidal, to help Sergi Roberto on the right.
With Chelsea looking dangerous on the counter, I can see Valverde instructing his team to stay back and settling for a 0-0 draw if he has to. This might make the game a bit more negative than perhaps we’ve expected, but in truth, a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge would be a positive result. Of course, a scoring draw is much better, and a win is much better than that, but another loss like the 1-0 they suffered in their last trip to the Bridge puts the tie strongly in Chelsea’s favor.