It's set to be a magical night in London this Wednesday as Chelsea prepare to face reigning European champions Barcelona, seeking revenge for what happended back in 2009 when Barca left the Bridge victorious. The Spanish giants are favourites, but can Chelsea pull off a shock win on home turf?
For Chelsea, they'll be buoyed by the news that skipper John Terry has overcame his rib injury along with left-back Ashley Cole who has sorted out his ankle problem, so both are likely to start.
Ryan Bertrand has a calf issue and Oriol Romeu, who left Barcelona to join the Blues last year, is suffering from illness so both are both doubts for the tie.
Barcelona, meanwhile, have midfielder Seydou Keita listed as a doubt (thigh).
And unfortunately for Chelsea, Lionel Messi is expected to start up top with Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez supplying the forward.
The Champions League story so far
After finishing last season in 2nd place in the league, the Blues were put straight into the group stages. And, by their standards, a group classed as not that tricky. They were drawn in Group E, consisting of German outfit Bayer Leverkusen, Spanish side Valencia and Belgian champions Genk. This was a group that they were favourites to finish top of; they didn't disappoint.
Having outplayed Leverkusen and Valencia home and away, the only real point at which the side got stuck was at Genk when they drew 1-1. But, they got the job done, finishing on 11 points after playing six matches. Sure, they were not at their ruthless best, were Chelsea, and not that convincing either - but they battled hard and earned themselves a round of 16 spot,
So, Napoli followed. Chelsea would travel to Italy for the first-leg and then play hosts in the return fixture. Well, the first leg didn't go all that smoothly. Having taken the lead through Juan Mata early on in Naples, one would have thought the Londoners would've gone onto seal the win and possibly the whole tie. But whoever did, thought wrong. The underestimated force that is Napoli fought back, netting three goals against a rather shaky backline. Napoli's prolific frontman Edinson Cavani proved too hot to handle, while tricky winger Ezuiquel Lavezzi was a constant threat out on the left wing. And it was the Italians that won on the night, injecting more pressure and fear into under pressure Andre Villas-Boas, who was in charge at the time. It was a poor performance from the visitors, who lacked any real purpose or danger in the second half.
Just days after the disappointing defeat to Napoli, Villas-Boas was shown the door by the club following poor domestic form as well as poor European form. It was inevitable that he would be given the sack soon after the loss, but not who would be brought in. Big names, including Real Madrid's 'Special One' Jose Mourinho and Tottenham's Harry Redknapp were linked, but in the end owner Roman Abramhovic opted for a more 'at home' route in appointing assistant boss Roberto Di Matteo until the end of the season. The appointment raised many fans’ eyebrows, especially with such a massive game coming up against Napoli.
Much was riding on the return leg at Stamford Bridge, with Chelsea needing to score four goals to secure progression to the quarter-finals. It was hyped up so much beforehand that you couldn't turn Sky Sports or any other Football channel on without seeing some kind of information about the game. But, to be fair to Chelsea, they polished off the nerves well and went onto record a famous win in what was a famous night, earning a 4-1 victory albeit through extra time thanks to Bransilav Ivanovic's late strike.
Relief all round, then. But who were they going to face in the quarter-final? Real Madrid? Barcelona? Bayern Munich? Marseille? Surprise package Apoel? All teams that Chelsea could have been picked with. But, no. Benfica were the team that they would play in the quarter-final, with the first leg being played in Portugal. Again, Di Matteo's men were favourites. This time, though, they played a lot better, keeping a clean sheet at Benfica and returning with a 1-0 win under their belt. Following it up with a nervy but crucial 2-1 victory over the Portuguese side in the second leg at the Bridge. It seemed Di Matteo was doing a pretty good job.
And of course, now, they face arguably the toughest test of all. The task? Beat Barcelona: the reigning European champions. Chelsea might well have been drawn the worst team to play in Barca, but Real Madrid and Bayern Munich (the other semi-final) are very good sides, too. It's time for Chelsea do get revenge, it's time for Chelsea v Barcelona.
Nothing but the final was the target no doubt for Barcelona before they entered the most prestigious competition in the world. And this target was made just that bit easier when they found out they would be playing Czech side Viktoria Plzen, Belarusian team BATE Borisov and, the hardest out of the bunch AC Milan, in Group H. Nothing but the summit would do for Guardiola's side.
Albeit, they got off to a tricky start drawing to Milan 2-2 in what was a tight affair. Messi looked, if I remember rightly, off the pace while the Barcelona defence was inefficient at times allowing the likes of Pato & Co. to dominate. But the team improved, finishing finally on 16 points, a whole 7 points ahead of second place Milan.
Bayer Leverkusen, the side that finished second in Chelsea group, were Barcelona’s next victims in the round of 16. And they had no trouble overcoming the Germans, thrashing them 10-2 on aggregate with Lionel Messi netting five in the return leg at Camp Nou, becoming the first ever player to score five goals in a Champions League encounter.
So, just to round off so far. They breezed the group stage, thumped a perfectly good, experienced European outfit in Bayer Leverkusen in the round of 16 and you could clearly see they weren’t messing about.
And guess what? It would be AC Milan that they would face again in the semi-finals, with the first leg at the San Siro. Although Pep Guardiola’s men were frustrated in Italy, they sealed the victory in the second leg with a 3-1 win – again getting the job done.
And now it’s Chelsea, a team they last faced in 2009, again in the semi-final. So they know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, now it’ time to walk the walk.
It’s set to be a cracking night, it really is. The last match between these two was a special one, on a night where Barcelona netted late on courtesy of a thunderous Andres Iniesta strike. And he’s a player, along with a few others, that the Blues will have to keep very tight on if they are to somehow keep a clean sheet.
I almost feel sorry for Di Matteo, who must be looking at the opposition, who possess the world’s best attacking players in Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Alexis Sanchez and of course Lionel Messi, and thinking: how on earth am I supposed to stop them? It’s a question so many have asked and so many have failed to deliver a answer on and off the pitch. If you can keep Xavi out, Iniesta will be there. If you can keep Messi out, Sanchez will be there. They’re the best team in the world. And it’s going to be one hell of a test for Chelsea.
I expect the home side to keep it tight at the back, with Terry and Luiz winning most of the few long balls played in the air. And then upfront, the likes of Dider Drogba and Fernando Torres will look to counter-attack using their pace and ability. I can’t see any other game plan from Di Matteo to be honest. And I think this counter-attack style will be used in both matches.
As for Barcelona, we all know what they will try and do. Pass. Pass. Pass. No doubt they will retain possession for large parts of the game, showcasing their Spanish way (as appose to the more fst, physical English approach). Chelsea must stay disciplined, professional and strong especially at the back with the firepower Barcelona have up top. Things they didn’t do last time, conceding in the last minute.
But both have changed, made transitions, since their last meeting. Chelsea have a different manager, different style, different midfield set-up. While Barca still stand proud to the same style of play and attacking trio, the situation is different and the environment will be different.
Formation: 4-2-3-1. This is the system Di Matteo has been playing domestically, and against Benfica, too. Ivanovic is likely to start ahead of Bosingwa, as to is Luiz ahead of Cahill. Essien and Meireles will drop deep, protecting the back four while the rejuvenated Kalou and Ramires will have the license to attack, supporting Lampard and Drogba, who I feel may be chosen for this one ahead of Torres.
Formation: 4-1-2-1-2. Whatever system Barcelona do play, it’s sure to be effective in some way. But, I fancy them to start with a narrow midfield, expanding with wide men Sanchez and Fabregas when they can. With Xavi sitting in front of the solid Pique and Puyol, there is stability there in midfield. And of course, with Messi upfront anything can occur in the blink of an eyelid.
Didier Drogba – Striker.
The veteran 34-year-old powerhouse, on his day, is one of the best forwards in the world football. This season, he’s been off the pace in some matches but in others has been the cutting edge – nonetheless still proving to be a significant factor in Chelsea’s success in the Champions League this term, though. The Ivory Coast international, who has four goals in Europe this season, was the main man against Benfica in the second leg and Di Matteo seems to like to start him more than Torres. Drogba must use his power, pace and hold up play to frustrate the Barcelona backline and cause danger to Puyol and Pique.
Ramires – Midfielder.
The former Benfica midfield maestro has improved hugely since his move a couple of years ago. The little no.7 has been changed into a temporary right winger under Di Matteo, a role which he has filled pretty well. We all know the Brazilian will run all day and has immense energy, and these attributes will be key to the Blues running midfield and putting pressure on the likes of Xavi and Iniesta, so they are hurried with the ball when in possession.
Xavi Hernandez – Midfielder.
The Spanish international, who has clocked up more than 600 appearances for the Catalan club since joining as a youngster, is for me one of the best, if not the best, midfielders in the world of the football. Consistent. Intelligent. Hard working. Honest. Experienced. He’s the ultimate central midfielder. He’ll pass the ball all day long, and is the man who provides the ammo for Barca’s frontline to go and attack. Most moves will be created by Xavi, and he’s just so hard to break down or put out of the game.
Lionel Messi – Striker.
Well, I had to include him didn’t I? Barcelona’s all-time top goal scorer, the club’s catalyst, the club’s driving enigma, the club’s everything. All of us are running out of words to describe this little fella. 61 goals and 25 assists for the Argentina international this campaign, and he’s 24. His quick feet, sublime technical ability, vision and finishing is a joy to watch – he, as always, will be the main figure and component behind everything Guardiola’s men do offensively.
Chelsea 1-1 Barcelona. I’ve put my neck out and gone for a 1-1 draw, with Chelsea taking the lead and defending for most of the match. Messi to grab a late equaliser and then Barcelona to go on and win the tie at the Camp Nou. It should be a really good, close encounter, though. And I for one am thoroughly looking forward to it.