Barcelona labored to a somewhat lucky one-all draw at the Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in the Round of 16 of the Champions League. While Barcelona dominated possession, Chelsea looked very dangerous and took the lead through Willian near the one hour mark. Barcelona set the final score with 15 minutes left in the game with Lionel Messi scoring after a costly Chelsea turnover for the all-important away goal.
From the opening whistle, both Chelsea and Barcelona wanted to get a leg up in the tie as soon as possible, a sight rarely seen in high profile matches as teams often wait to get a “feel for the game”. The hosts, especially, looked dangerous in the early going, causing numerous problems to the Catalan defense. First, Eden Hazard fired from the right wing but missed high and wide in the 5th minute. Four minutes later Chelsea threatened from a corner kick but Antonio Rudiger missed with the header.
While Barcelona looked to create danger from possession play, Chelsea’s defense allowed very little space with five playing in the back when Barcelona were looking to attack. But patience eventually led to a scoring chance for Barcelona, coming in the 16th minute when Lionel Messi found Paulinho inside the penalty area, but the Brazilian’s header went wide across goal.
After threatening in the opening minutes, Chelsea often sat back, frustrating Barcelona with an organized defense while looking for their chance on the counter attack. But after some early shaky defense early, Barcelona allowed Chelsea very little time inside Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s half. After 20 minutes, Chelsea saw only 25% of the ball.
Chelsea struggled mightily in possession in the middle part of the half as Barcelona were pressing very high up the pitch, leading to numerous deep turnovers, but the visitors were unable to make them pay. On the other end of the pitch, Chelsea looked to employ a similar tactic, but more often than not Barcelona fairly easily passed their way out of danger.
Chelsea started threatening again around the half-hour mark with a couple good looking counter attacks. In the 31st minute ter Stegen was called into action for the first time, making a save on Marcos Alonso’s attempt from a free kick. Three minutes later the hosts came close again, this time Willian skipping past Sergio Busquets and firing from 25-yards out. Ter Stegen knew he was beaten, ball-watching as soon as the ball left Willian’s foot, but the German was saved by his left post.
Now it was Chelsea’s turn to pin Barcelona back, with Hazard and Willian causing problems with their individual skills. But Barcelona weathered the storm and created a good chance in the 38th minute when Ivan Rakitić swung in a corner kick right onto the head of Gerard Pique, but due to just enough of a tug from Rudiger couldn’t get enough of the ball to send it on goal. After some more lax defending from Barcelona, Willian had another chance in the 41st minute, this time firing from 20-yards, but the Brazilian was unlucky again, this time hitting the other post. The very next minute Hazard ran onto a poor clearance but fired over.
Chelsea were playing with momentum after surviving Barcelona’s press during the middle part of the first half. The hosts clearly had more scoring chances and they were of better quality but going into the halftime break the two teams remained in a scoreless tie.
The second half started with no changes on either side. Barcelona looked to begin the second half with better play than how they ended the first one. They managed to pin Chelsea back quickly, but creating scoring opportunities remained difficult. In the 53rd minute, Luis Suarez showed some rare signs of life on the pitch, making a lovely play on the left side to create space, but from a tough angle couldn’t threaten Thibaut Courtois while nobody ran into the middle for what would’ve been an easy tap in as the Uruguayan’s ball went across goal. Suarez made another strong run five minutes later, but was denied by a sliding Victor Moses before he could enter the danger area.
Barcelona were pinning Chelsea back for long stretches, but Courtois barely had to break as sweet – there was just no space to operate and while Messi was always on hand to dangle around a couple players, Barcelona looked toothless. Chelsea, on the other hand, rarely went forward but when they did they were dangerous. And while the hosts were plagued by bad luck in the first half, they broke the scoreless tie in the 62nd minute. After a corner kick, Barcelona inexplicably left Willian wide open in a spot very similar to the one from which he twice hit the post. This time he curled the ball around Samuel Umtiti and Rudiger who were in his way to slot the ball just inside the left post of a helpless ter Stegen.
Now in the lead, Chelsea dropped even deeper, congesting space in the middle even more. Ernesto Valverde reacted immediately after conceding, bringing on Aleix Vidal in place of Paulinho in an effort to extend Chelsea’s back-line which now often included not only five men, but six. Barcelona were pressing, slowly chipping away at Chelsea’s defense. In the 75th minute, Suarez had a penalty claim denied, but as play continued, Andres Iniesta intercepted a poor pass. Iniesta skipped past a sliding César Azpilicueta and with the defense out of position, Iniesta had options. He sent the ball to a wide open Messi just inside the area who made no mistake, sending the ball to the near post with Courtois going the other way to tie the game at one and finally open his scoring account against Chelsea.
With the away goal conceded, Antonio Conte was looking freshen up his attacking ranks in hopes of gaining an advantage before the 2nd leg, replacing former Barcelona man Pedro with former Real Madrid man Alvaro Morata in the 83rd minute. Moments later, Danny Drinkwater replaced the only other remaining former Barcelona player on the pitch, Cesc Fabregas.
Chelsea were looking create something in the final minutes of the match, but Barcelona were intent on defending with numbers, protecting the favorable scoring draw, allowing very little space for the hosts to operate. In added time, Andre Gomes replaced Iniesta to kill off some more time before the referee blew the final whistle. While Conte tactically excellently kept Barcelona at bay, a rare turnover allowed Barcelona to leave England with a favorable result, especially considering how little the Catalans created. The return leg will be played on 14 March, but first up for Barcelona is a Catalan derby against Girona on Saturday.