Of Fear and 4-2-3-1: Chelsea – Barça

CL Preview: Chelsea – Barcelona, Wednesday 2:45pmET

Chelsea. That name can conjure up quite a series of feelings for just about any cule whose fandom predates 2010. The last time the two teams met, Iniesta rescued the dreams of a triplete from the brink. Before that it was 2006-07 in the group stage, 2005-06 in the knockouts when Barça went through 3-2 on aggregate and 2004-05 when Chelsea went through 5-4 on aggregate. Some of the grayer beards out there may remember 1999-2000 when Barça needed extra time to win 6-4.

There has certainly been joy and heartbreak for both sides in this rivalry, with some fairly breathtaking goals taking place (Ronalinho’s wonder toe poke in 2005 and Essien’s outrageous volley in 2009, for just two examples) but sometimes the ugly side of the game broke through that.

In 2009 Tom Henning Øvrebø was beset by death threats from Chelsea fans after a controversial game at Stamford Bridge, but before that, before Øvrebø was the greatest scapegoat in town, Ander Frisk was pushed into early retirement by Chelsea fans reacting to Jose Mourinho’s goading after a controversial first leg at Camp Nou saw Barça holding a 2-1 advantage and Didier Drogba sitting in the stands with a red card. Then too the ref was sent a slew of death threats. The second leg was no stranger to controversy either, as the 4th goal in Chelsea’s 4-2 victory, the goal that sent them through, could have been called back for an obviously foul on Valdes by Carvalho (full highlights of the game here), but while Pierluigi Collina never mentioned any death threats (I can’t be sure none were sent, of course), the truth was obvious: had Barça merely put away their chances, they would have won with or without that late foul. The same is true of Chelsea in 2009. They played against 10 by dropping deep and allowing easy possession. In the end it killed them.

Hopefully these matches will go more smoothly than those previous ones, but there is little doubt that it will be an anxious semifinal. Frank Lampard may be claiming that Barça is the favorite (and it would be hard to argue otherwise), but going in believing it will be easy is not something that Guardiola will allow. Iniesta has re-iterated the previously stated position of Javier Mascherano and Pep himself that the tie is going to cost quite a bit of energy and probably produce a few more gray hairs for everyone.

With Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard scoring goals like it’s 2005, Roberto Di Matteo seems to have found a way to rejuvenate a squad that, despite reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League under Andres Villas-Boas, was succumbing to the weight of its own veterans. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking has a Guardian column about Ramires’ addition to the Chelsea midfield. Perhaps the most telling line is this: “Ramires is Chelsea’s most frequent tackler and also their most frequent dribbler – a unique role for a Premier League player.” And it’s one that Barça will not only be aware of, but wary of too. His lightning quick attacks are capable of dealing a fatal blow to any Champions League aspirations; he has scored just 11 times himself (though 9 of them have been this season), but he destabilizes defenses rather well and has shown an aptitude for getting a boot in at the right time. His poke on to Fernando Torres against Benfica in the first leg of the quarter finals led to Torres’ cross for Kalou to tap in what turned out to be a tie-deciding goal.

All of that, though, ignores the Chelsea player who might just be better than all the others: Juan Mata. He was purchased from Valencia this last summer for some €28m and has made a massive impact in England—despite there having been some rainy days at Stoke, no doubt. He’s scored 6 league goals and 13 overall this season, a solid number given his 18 assists (according to Wikipedia). Only Frank Lampard, with 16, has more for Chelsea.

Their defense is somewhat stricken of late, with David Luiz picking up a hamstring injury and Gary Cahill a foot injury in their 5-1 FA Cup semifinal win over Tottenham. Luiz looks like he’ll miss out on at least the first leg while Cahill is likely to play despite any lingering side effects he may have. Bosingwa or Ivanovic might have to step in and play pivotal roles at CB if he can’t go—there’s also Paulo Ferreira, who until the Benfica match I thought had retired (he’s played in 6 matches this year), but it seems unlikely that he’ll take part.

On Sunday they started Cech, Cole, Terry, David Luiz, Bosingwa, Lampard, Mikel, Ramires, Kalou, Mata, and Drogba. Tottenham ended up with 51% of the possession against what ZM calls a 4-2-3-1 that employs the same tactic Madrid has been employing against Barça for a while: 2 deep-lying holders hoping to cut off the center. Width will be at a premium, meaning players such as Cuenca and Alexis will have to move quickly into space as well as deftly take on their rather good defensive opponents. Levante offered up a similar scheme, but with worse players and they were not particularly ineffective against Barça’s attack, which ended up looking sluggish until the second half when Cuenca replaced Xavi.

In the end, if Chelsea allow Barça time and space on the ball, you can be fairly confident Barça will prevail. That scenario, where Chelsea back off too much and let the wide players begin to dictate the pace of the game, is unlikely. Bosingwa and Cole are far better than the average pair of wing backs and they could seriously hinder any width-creation simply by being capable of challenging without fouling or giving up position. That would leave Barça’s central attackers—all 3,328 of the little midgets—wanting for service and dropping ever-deeper for possession. It’ll be a tough battle for Chelsea as Barça will never stop looking for crucial away goals, but Barça’s defense will also have to be on high alert throughout the match for loose giveaways.

Dani Alves will be hoping that Chelsea play scared, once again.

By Isaiah

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in the greater New York City area with his wife and daughter.


  1. -I think Pep should go into the match just like how he prepared his team for AC Milan.

    -We need to be conservative but at least get a goal.

    -Two key players.
    Keita and Alves are the key players for me.
    Keita for his body and Alves for his crosses.

    -I have a feeling that Messi & Iniesta will be be kept quiet.

  2. I am strangely calm about tomorrow. I think we’ll teach them a thing or two about football. This feeling is unnatural for a cule, I know. I’ll go away now and come back properly pessimistic later.

  3. OT: This Bayern-Madrid game has got me so excited as a football fan. Seeing two big sides going at it outside of a Barca game should be fun to watch.

  4. I was calm when the potential draw lined up with Chelski as our Semi-Final opponent, but inevitably, my nerves get to me. This is a different Chelski team than 4 weeks ago. I still think our speed, possession, defensive pressing, and youth will prevail, but I’m cautiously opptimistic. I would rather have the 1st leg home and be able to play our game on our pitch with our crowd, then have to play at Stamford Bridge with the bus parked and no space to maneuver

    1. I want to believe…but we all know what happens when opposing teams score before EE.

      That was a lovely goal though.

    2. Oh and how they roll. I can’t believe Gomez. He’s been awful this game. Giving away possession WAY to easily. Missing a few sitters. I think he’s been fantastic for Bayern this year but he’s clearly not on form in this match. Shame. Bayern gift a goal and should be up 3 nil.

    3. What a BALL from Lahm!!! Some ball!!! I’m not conceding to Gomez. He was gifted that ball from the GODS! But I’ll take it!!!! Please hold on for a few more minutes!

    4. I’m hoping right along side you Messiah10..hold on for dear life and stop gifting them the ball.

    5. YEAH Culegirl!!! I’m giving u an imaginary hug! Since I’m watching the game alone…oh wait…my teenage sons locked in his room. LOL

  5. I think that we will need our outside shot in this round and possibly next… Midfielders sprinting forward to strike layoffs from 18 yards out. Al la scholes. I think iniesta and Cess will be up for it.

  6. Gomez doesnt hold up the ball at all and its cost Bayern.He’ll probably score after i say this but its hurting them.Someone like van Persie would really help them this summer.

    1. I dont mean the missed chances, hes good at what he does and he still scored but i mean outside the box.Its part of the reason the couldn’t beat Dortmund.

    2. Jordi,

      I thrashed him as well for losing possession way to easily. Trying neat little back heels to imaginary players, bad balls…BUT, he SCORED!!! I just wish Bayern hadn’t had brain fart on D that 1 time. Would be done and dusted if not. Oh well. Can’t wait to see Mou Mou’s rant about non calls and what not. What a jerk

    3. Yea, credit to him, he keeps trying till he finally scores.Two years ago his head would have dropped.Nothing against him personally.Was just talking in terms of Bayern reaching their full potential.

    1. Coentrao and Arbeloa were rendered almost useless in this match. It was obvious they were desperate and in a bind with all those fouls they were committing. I think this game would have been 2-0 or 3-0 had Bayern stopped gifting the ball to EE.

  7. oh hellllll yeah 🙂 normally, i avoid EE matches, but i’m so glad i watched that game.

  8. Great game, very enjoyable (apart from Marcelo’s horrible tackle). Come on Bayern!

  9. Awesome game.

    Marcelo definitely deserved a red card at the end there. He’s become an absolute animal (not in a good way) since mou came.

  10. Good result for us if we get past Chelsea.Madrid lack such composure that definitely some of those carded players will miss the final.

  11. That Gomez goal reminded me so much of that Affelay assisted Messi goal from last season semis.

    1. Definitely.They could have don more damage if Robben had actually tried to dribble and go outside like lahm did.

  12. When the prospect of this tie first revealed itself, I was excited as Chelsea were really Chelshit at the time. But 6 weeks on, they are a different beast now. They have renewed belief and a new manager who seems to do no wrong. Drogba is feeling it and Chelsea have that ‘pure’ spirit coming into the game. Nobody is really expecting them to go through and therefore they have absolutely nothing to lose. All these things are starting to make me feel a bit anxious. I’m not as confident about this game now. The other thing is the 1st leg being at the SB. Its a small pitch and Chelsea are more than capable of frustrating us without giving us clear chances. If we’re heading back to camp nou with a scoreless or 1-1 draw, chelsea are still very much in the tie.

    Anyways, hoping for a clean entertaining game where barca can win by a goal or two.

    Too bad ee got that away goal. Is it the all important one?

  13. Neuer was perfect today. He claimed everything in the air under pressure and managed some good saves too. Actually most of their back line played well.Alaba has amazing composure for a 19 year old not in his natural position.

    1. Def. Neuer is a stud. Fearless. He controls his area like a man. He, Iker, and Valdez def the 3 top keepers for me. I think VV has eclipsed Iker in the last 2 years but try telling the media that. Neuer can give him a run for his money though and still young. Maybe he’d come to Barca after Bayern? VV may be near the end by then. I wasn’t sure how old Alaba was. 19? Wow. He was composed. Great game for whole team. Gomez was weak link for me but did his job in the end.

  14. Anyone have any idea about the condition of the pitch at the Bridge ahead of our game vs chelsea tomorrow?

    1. Heard it will be watered and cut to our liking, but not confirmed, all rumors from twitter.

  15. So impressed with the Bayern defensive line tonight – no panic, in comparison to what was happening at the other end of the pitch. 😀

    Boateng and Alaba are fantastic.

    David Alaba would be worthy of a look at by Barca. He’s only 19 and would be an excellent addition at LB.

  16. Did you guys see this Puyol pic?


    1. Actually, its an awesome gallery of Puyol pics. I think the English are finally appreciating our captain

  17. Hee hee hee! The best thing about Ribery’s goal? That once again it was Teh Ramos at fault! Watch how Xabi Alonso shouted at him afterwards. LOL!!!!

    1. Oh, and also? Everyone says set pieces are Barça’s weakness (and they are), but how many goals have RM conceded from set pieces in the last month?

      Malaga, Villarreal, Bayern…


    2. I rolled my eyes especially sarcastically when the FSC commentators talked about how defensively solid EE have been. Seems to me they give up some great chances most games, it’s just that substandard finishing has let them off! Athletic especially could have had quite a game if they paired their great build-up play with composed finishing.

      Puyol also found a way through their set piece defense. 🙂

  18. Was saying this on Twitter:

    It seems like the general consensus is Barca will play a “conservative” lineup tomorrow. It’s expected actually, but I wonder what conservative really means when talking about this Barca squad.

    Given the mainstream usage of the word in football, conservative is synonymous with defensive. But if you go by the definition of the word it roughly means: “staying true to traditional values or approaches.”

    Now here’s the thing: Barca never changes its approach*, only the way it’s implemented.

    *Since Pep has come in, the defensive and offensive approaches have been the same. Against Getafe, as noted by psqd in the review, much was made of flexibility of squad given injuries + suspension but though the lineup/formation differed, core tenet(s) never changed.

    The defensive approach: 1) pressure defense, 2) high back line, 3) numerical advantage at the back (i.e. 1 more FCB defender than opposition attack).

    The offensive one: 1) dominate possession, 2) numerical superiority in midfield, 3) tactical width -> create space for Messi.

    These haven’t changed since the start of Pep’s reign; what has changed is the different ways he’s gone about. No matter who on the squad plays, Barca will always be conservative.

    Now given this, the stigma surrounding Seydou Keita is pretty curious. To some, playing him suggests Barca are playing conservatively, ie. defensive, and become impotent offensively as a result. I don’t agree with this for a couple of reasons:

    1) While Keita does add some much needed physicality, steel, and composure in the midfield, his late runs into the box are not unlike the ones Fabregas makes (and is so lauded for).

    2) If a team decreases its efficiency at the offensive end, you have to look at players whose job it is to create and score — for Barca, that’s 5+ players (depends on what you define ‘creative’ as).

    3)It all depends on how Pep implements the game plan (and how effective it is). Methinks we’ll see something new.

  19. These streak of matches are going to be interesting but I am also having Discrete math, Calculus and Linear Algebra maths exams next week. It’s going to be difficult concentrating.

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