Let’s Play: Barcelona – Chelsea

CL Preview: Tuesday 2:45pmET (8:45 Central European Time), Fox Soccer

The final whistle blows and one team falls down, head in hands or head between knees. One set of fans clutches at their scarves as they wander away through what should be a drizzle at least, maybe a cleansing downpour. They go home and sit and stare off into space, wondering what could have been, maybe what should have been. In the morning the sun still somehow comes up and life resumes all around them. Such is the pain that a semifinal can cause.

Count yourself lucky, though, win or lose because there are plenty of other teams that would gladly trade positions with you. Would you rather reach the semifinal and lose or never reach the semifinal at all? Would you rather be an early 90s Buffalo Bills fan or a Cleveland Browns fan at any point in the history of the NFL? Would you rather be runner up in La Liga or relegated like Wolves? Would you rather watch Leo Messi week-in, week-out or demand Genoa’s shirts?

Whoever wins tomorrow—Chelsea or Barça—this has been another amazing season from Pep Guardiola’s team. A stunning fight in the league that could the see the winner requiring 94 points to win, a Champions League semifinal berth, and a date in the Copa del Rey final. And to think, the team could end up with 2 major trophies and the first back-to-back CL victory in the current format, could defeat a Europa League semifinalist (and maybe finalist) in the CDR final while their star player smashes scoring records left and right.

After all of that, here’s the thing: I think Barça will go through to the final. I realize the odds are stacked against the team: down in the scoreline with no away goal, injuries riddling the lineup, fatigue setting in after 813 matches in a 3-month span, and the team’s unshakeable fortress well and truly shaken. Yet there’s also the hope that if Chelsea can win 1-0 at home, why can’t Barça pull of a 2-0 or a 3-1? Why not? Putting several beyond Chelsea is no easy feat, but what is to say it’s impossible? Arsenal put 5 beyond them (and the final score, 5-3, would be fine by me). Aston Villa beat them 1-3 at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool beat them 0-2 at the Bridge in the Carling Cup. And yes, those are the only times this season that Chelsea has ended with a scoreline that would see them out of the Champions League (as best as I can tell, anyway), but then again, Barça has put a good enough scoreline beyond quite a few teams.

Valdes, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Adriano, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc, Messi, Alexis.

While I absolutely love Tello and Thiago, I do think their inclusion in the lineup against Madrid was an act of desperation forced upon Guardiola by injuries and circumstance. Then again, why not Cuenca? Why not make a move earlier to rectify what was going on? But I don’t mean to question Pep—I feel both like I’m not smart enough to understand it and incredibly annoyed that I think I understand what he did wrong. Tello wasn’t ready, was too frisky to put out there when calmness and control were necessary. Thiago was simply put in an untenable position: dominate the midfield, make runs, fight fires, break them down, etc.

But how do you not include the immense Mascherano in the lineup? Can Puyol play LB effectively enough? Is Pique ready to step back on the field and prove—once again—why he’s world class? Thiago, Pedro, Cuenca, they all deserve a look here, for width, for pace, for understanding  of the system. But who do you sacrifice? I’m not the biggest Cesc fan, but it seemed on Saturday that there was a lack of verticality, that the team was setting up chances and then failing to do anything about them because no one made the run. It’s not that verticality is good, but rather that if the team sets up a vertical game plan, maybe there should be someone there to collect the pass or at least open up some midfield space?

And, of course: put away your chances. If you don’t put away your chances, you lose. Simple. It’s the story of the last 2 matches, really, and it can’t go on if the season is to continue. Simple. Messi needs to wake up, but he needs support too, he needs space and players not barfing their chances into the upper deck (Cesc, Xavi, Alexis, and Busi).

I think we do it. I think we crush. I think we play like Barça can play. Official Prediction: 3-1. Goals by Messi (2) and Alexis. Play to win. Win to keep playing.

I believe. Do you?

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Written by:

Isaiah is a co-founder and lead writer for Barcelona Football Blog. He currently lives in Germany with his wife and daughter.


  1. April 23, 2012

    I think we will score enough goals, my only worry is the tiredness and what that means for our pressing and defense. I think we pull it out though, 3-1.

  2. icemel
    April 23, 2012

    2-0. Drogba finds nothing but grass this time, and “vertical” Cesc puts one in + Messi. We still hit the post 3 times and cules are left with no finger nails to chew on in the final where they mop up a lucky Bayern.

    • mom4
      April 23, 2012

      Stop ragging on poor Drogba, will you? I don’t think anybody here appreciates the seriousness of his predicament. For the rest of creation, the force of gravity is about 9.8 m/s2. But for Didier, poor dear, it seems to be much, much higher. Whether it is due to some quirk of genetics (is there Chelsea DNA?), or some quantum singularity that forms in his soccer boots, he falls more readily and stays down for longer periods of time than average. He’s a big guy too so the force with which he hits the ground is proportionally larger then when a midget like Messi does. He needs our sympathy, and it a ******* disgrace that he gets none here.

      • icemel
        April 23, 2012

        This explains why I like the guy despite his antics!
        or maybe it’s just cause he’s the king. DiveMaria, Crynaldo…our own Busi I just want to slap…Didier, I want to applaud or hold up an Olympic judges card.

      • garry
        April 23, 2012

        Yup. you are absolutely right, mom4. *sighs* poor guy!

  3. TITO
    April 23, 2012

    I somehow miss the Cesc from beginning of the season, his direct plays and the goals that he scored.
    Moving him in the middle and trying to make him a Xavi or Iniesta didn’t worked, not yet, so he should be sent back to where he was best for us, upfront.
    Our players have to play the game of the season if they want to make it. Hopefully will a have a little more luck than usual. We definitely need it.

    • mom4
      April 23, 2012

      I hate to say it, but Cesc’s dip in form seemed to coincide with the haircut.

    • Anonymous_69
      April 23, 2012

      Playing wide players won’t give us width, unfortunately. We can play guys like Cuenca and Pedro as wide as we want, but Chelsea will completely ignore them and stay narrow anyways. They have no trouble at all defending crosses. If we want width, we firstly need an aerial threat. Chelsea’s defense won’t spread wide unless they feel the need to stop crosses.

      So we can start Cuenca and Pedro, but they’ll just end up coming inside anyways, and essentially play the same position that Sanchez and Fabregas might play. So the question for me is, who are the most in form player that can cause the biggest threat in the congested area around the 18 yard box? I am in full support of playing Thiago LW. In fact, even when Villa was fit, I supported the idea of a Thiago-Messi-Sanchez attack line.

      Our biggest hope is to have players can dribble in the middle (if Chelsea focus solely on Messi, we need others like Iniesta and Sanchez who will naturally take charge and take advantage of the space by dribbling), and to have players who will shoot from outside the box. Pedro won’t be dribbling by anyone, he won’t demand the ball, and with his form, he definitely won’t be shooting. Cuenca has proven to be just as good cutting inside as he is driving down the wing. He does nice give and goes around the ball, and can certainly dribble in tight spaces. However, his scoring is relatively unproven, and he will easily get out-muscled by Chelsea. Cesc can shoot from outside the box, and can make good direct runs inside the box. But his form is too off right now, and I prefer Thiago anyways.


      If Xavi isn’t available, move Thiago to the midfield and play Cesc in the forward line (or move Iniesta to the attack and use Keita, who, if having a good game, can change the dynamic of the game in our favor).

      • phunky
        April 23, 2012

        I agree to almost everything you say, Anonymous. But our forward line has to have Cuenca. He causes all sorts of problems with his crosses, when he actually gets them in a few times. If we have Sanchez in there along with Cesc’s and Messi’s late runs, I’m sure it’ll result in a goal.
        My line-up would be-


  4. mom4
    April 23, 2012

    Alves, Pique, Masche, Puyol
    Xavi(but I’d rather see Thiago if he’s hurting badly), Iniesta
    Alexis, Messi, Pedro
    Cuenca in earlier if there’s a width problem.
    Cesc in if we need more directness.
    Keita in if we need more steel.

    • I think that’s the line-up we should start with. But if they are not able to penetrate the defense, the substitution has to happen very early(preferably at half time)

  5. April 23, 2012

    I hope we win on Tuesday. As much as I love La Liga, we’ve been slowly losing it over the past months. Crashing out of the CL will be a much bigger blow (to me, at least) than losing this weekend to RM was.

    The thing is, Chelsea will likely play deep and compact, and try to catch us on the break. They’re not RM, but they still have the one-goal advantage at the moment, which is huge, because it allows them to sit deep and focus on defending which is their stronger aspect rather than attack. Considering our current form (which supposedly peaks during Clasicos – but hasn’t due various reasons) I think we’re gonna have trouble breaking them down.

    The earlier we score the better. This team is so good that despite injuries and fatigue, it still manages to create 1 or 2 clear cut chances, even when they’re not at the top of their game. If we take those chances early on, we can force Chelsea to come out and play. And once we’ve scored first, I’m certain we can score more. The problem is we haven’t been taking our chances recently. I just hope we do tomorrow.

    • Helge
      April 23, 2012

      This time, the away-goals-rule might break our neck.

      As Isaiah noted, we have to put away our chances. But it’s not any less important to defend with more focus and concentration, unlike we did vs Real Madrid and also Chelsea.

      Chelsea has no reason at all to panic even if we are leading with 2 goals. A late goal in injury time still puts them through.

      This is a very complicated match. We cannot allow to ‘relax’ a little bit, not leave the smallest room for error until we lead 3-0. Which is practically impossible against a focused Chelsea (that is the difference between the Chelsea of tomorrow and the one that lost to Arsenal 5-3, their motivation – and coach – is on a whole different level).
      It’s a lot like the semi-final 2 years ago against Inter. But I think Chelsea will go for the counter, also because our defense seems to be more vulnerable than back then.

      I agree with your verdict about a possible elimination. In my head, la Liga was lost since 2 months or so. But I never pondered a loss against Chelsea, they were sooo poor offensively and got much less of the games against Benfica (except of the result…^^) – was very confident we’d already finish the tie with a +1 goals victory at Stamford Bridge.
      And now this unimposing team is on the verge of killing our CL dreams :/

  6. flyzowee
    April 23, 2012

    This game represents a season defining game for chelsea as well.
    Its pretty clear. The only way they qualify for the CL next season is by knocking us out, winning the final and qualifying automatically. Thats the game plan. Killing 2 birds with one BUS.

    I agree with those calling for the cesc of early season.

    However it will come at a cost as he will most likely be
    a pedestrian till Messi brings the ball within 20yards of goal. Only then does he seem to come alive.

    No contribution to build up play.

  7. April 23, 2012

    How about we play Messi as a midfielder tomorrow?


    Alves Pique Masch Puyol
    Busi Iniesta Messi
    Cuenca Cesc Alexis

    It’s not like Chelsea will come at us, mostly a few counterattacks which the backline and Busi should be able to deal with. This is an ultra attacking lineup featuring width and “depth” and I think one that will score goals.

    • mom4
      April 23, 2012

      Messi has been dropping deep lately anyway. He’d draw defenders away from the front guys and can find that killer pass. Would Cesc stay forward or would he have a tendency to drop back into midfield? Would Messi stay back or would he have the tendency to more forward? Tactical discipline might go out the window if we are under pressure to score. Plus, tactical discipline also goes out the window if you’re exhausted as it’s easier to play where you default to.

      It would be a glorious lineup though. And Xavi would get to rest.

  8. Given that Xavi has been struggling with his achilles injury and is clearly tired as the season draws to a close, would anyone consider leaving him on the bench?

    A midfield trio of Busquets with Iniesta and Fabregas ahead of him is much more dynamic and vertical. They are also able to play at a higher tempo on the few occasions that space opens up in front of them.

    You do lose the control that Xavi offers but has he has slowed down in recent weeks, the losss of control could be tempered with the higher tempo that would result without him.

    • flyzowee
      April 23, 2012

      If xavi believes hes fit enough to play, then no doubt he will be on that pitch

      I think it was Pep who once said that he afforded xavi the luxury of determining if and when he should be rested due to his importance.

      I believe this rule still applies coz he had a calf injury before the Milan tie but still played.

      Every time xavis health is in doubt he seems tn have the final word. Pep trusts that xavi wont harm the team by playing injured.

      A big player like xavi will always want to play these games.
      Theres no way hed say No. Only way he doesnt start this game is if changes the order and tells him to sit IMO.

  9. April 23, 2012

    Alves Piqué Masch Puyol
    Cesc Alexis Cuenca

    • htMillBay
      April 23, 2012

      I would play with a 3 man back line. Everyone knows that Chelsea will park the bus and 95% of the game will be played in their half of the field. Alves can of course spend a lot of time coming forward. So it would be Alves, Pique and Puyol. Busi dropping back whenever Alves is on the right wing.
      I really hope Pique is match fit. We need his height and his knowledge of the English game and he is our best defender at starting attacks.
      I would keep Xavi in the starting lineup even if he is clearly hobbling and you only need one moment of genius from him to turn the game, however I would be ready to sub Thiago even early depending on how Xavi is physically. The Xavi role in this match may mean coverage of a lot of ground so I have doubts with his physical condition for it.
      We need to score and score early. Our 3 best scorers this season have been Messi, Cesc and Alexis so they need to be in from the start of the game. The latter 2 will also provide the vertical runs behind the defense and Cesc provides an outlet for Messi.
      Of course Iniesta and Busi for the build up with Xavi and Messi. Pedro to provide width on the left. Pedro is one of Barca’s most intelligent players and has the highest work rate so even if he’s not in scoring form he can drag defenders and open gaps for Messi. And he’s a big game scorer especially in the CL even more than the Liga.
      Pedro and Alves can provide the width on the left and right respectively. Sanchez provides the vertical while Messi and Cesc move as an attacking unit and interchange false 9 and 10 positions.
      Chelsea will be compact and we need to drag them horizontally and vertically.
      VV, Alves, Pique, Puyol, Busi, Xavi (Thiago), Iniesta, Cesc, Pedro, Messi, Alexis

  10. Jim
    April 23, 2012

    Arrived back late last night after watching my daughter run in the London marathon on sunday ( she made it in just over six hours minus the toilet breaks which apparently totalled over an hour !) What a great event. If you ever want to see humanity at its best that is where to go. So many enduring ridiculous hardship for charity, the people of London who came out in their masses and were so giving to the runners and the simple stories of runners helping each other through difficult patches. I became quite emotional as I watched it all unfold.

    Managed to avoid hearing the score till I returned home late. No thanks to the Chelsea fan who got onto the Tube, stood beside me and phoned his pal to discuss their chances of beating us. Ended up (literally!) with both fingers in my ears “la, la, la ing” while those sitting opposite looked on in amazement and my wife disowned me 🙂

    Anyway, what a disappointment when I watched the match. Disappointed at the lineup but not really at the performance although we didn’t really have a great cutting edge. Don’t agree with those who said Xavi was poor. What he needed was Iniesta right beside him in the midfield to take a bit of the strain and allow him to play further forward although it probably was right to take him off as he was hurting. Don’t agree that Thiago had a good game. Not getting at him. His time will come but he can’t control a match like either of the twins atm. Fed up saying that Masch costs us match after match and it can’t get more obvious than Ronaldo’s goal. He is good at making headline tackles ( which don’t always have to be made but which some love) but positional sense is not good enough for a CB at this level. We need Pique back and now.

    I read Kxevin’s article and it was an impressive read. I do agree with a lot of it but can we clear up that just because Pep makes a decision and he is the coach who knows better than any of us it doesn’t mean it’s the right decision? I reckon he has wasted Iniesta for most of this season and made a mistake in ostracising Pique in favour of Masch. I think he has over rated Thiago’s performances and I never liked the three at the back despite some advantages it can give us. Only an opinion but these are things that we are entitled to say about our team. For me, the season will be a relatively poor one if we don’t win the league or the CL. Sorry, but with this team ( which Pep could have strengthened if he had wanted – also why did Maxwell go IF he knew about Abidal? ) we should be winning trophies. Real Madrid weren’t great last night – we were the better team – but the important points were lost in easier games where we footered around and they didn’t, so they deserve it.

    The Chelsea game does worry me. They are an English side and as such can defend pretty well if they need to. Worried too about the reports of Messi being sick. After a hard game his energy levels are bound to be down. However, having said all of this, and you have to forgive my outburst being 24 hours late, I still love watching this team and wouldn’t swap their style for anything. FWIW, my lineup would be

    Alves Pique Puyol Adriano

    Busi Xavi Iniesta

    Pedro Messi Sanchez

    with Cesc on at half time if it isn’t working.

    Btw, I loved the sight of balls being threaded inside the FB for Tello and his pace in getting inside the FB and making it hard for him to tackle. Possible sign of the future for me – although maybe this Clasico came a little early for him.

    Apologies for the rant. Still tired after a wearying but rewarding day.

  11. Momo
    April 23, 2012

    If there is a match that needs 3 at the back it’s this:


    I expect pique to play as a center forward if we haven’t scored in 20 minutes.

    • htMillBay
      April 23, 2012

      Everyone now believes that if you stop Messi from scoring you stop Barcelona. So you can bet that Chelsea’s 3 midfielders will pick up Messi if he drops deep and their entire back line will be focused on stopping him. So we need to put other players: Alexis, Cesc, Pedro, Iniesta in position to score. (Which we did at Stamford Bridge but they couldn’t finish. They will at Campu Nou)
      Goal dot com puts out a lot of crap but I like their analysis of how FCB has become too Messi dependent this season so this needs to be fixed for the most important match so far this year.

      • Momo
        April 23, 2012

        Agreed, the loss of Villa as a goal source really has placed tremendous burden on Messi as a source of goals. That being said most direct players (Cesc, alexis, even Villa) that were brought into the system to be direct seem to have fit in to that mold as well.

        When was the last time Alexis attempted to dribble past a full back?

        I think Pep needs to give greater freedom to other forwards to take more risks with possession by taking the game into their own hands. Let Pedro cut in and take shots instead of constantly recycling the ball back to the midfield, let alexis attempt to dribble and torment defenders with his close control (the reason we bought him from udinese), let fabregas crack a shot or two from outside the box. Having wide forwards who practically contribute next to nothing other than nonthreatening width and turning it over to messi every time he is available makes Barca much more predictable.

        Call me crazy but I would actually love to see Barca play a few of the remaining la liga games without leo to see where we truly are attacking wise.

  12. Anonymous_69
    April 23, 2012

    Personally, I don’t think Messi should play in the midfield in this match. Maybe if everyone was fit and on form, but not now. Messi is our only goal scorer at the moment, he needs to play closer to the goal. Plus, if the idea is to have him further away so that he won’t be covered by the CBs, won’t it be the same in the midfield with him being covered by Chelsea’s trivote? The best idea is to play Sanchez as a striker to occupy the CBs, and play Messi as a 10 right behind, in between the lines. The CBs can’t come out to challenge Messi, and the trivot will be busy marking Iniesta and Xavi/Thiago/Iniesta/Keita whoever, along with Busquets. My only worry about this is that it might leave Chelsea’s fullbacks free to attack. That’s one reason it might be better to start Puyol at LB, and maybe even Thiago instead of Xavi, as Thiago is better equipped to cover Ramires’ runs.

  13. kinukinu
    April 23, 2012

    Actually, I was a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan in the 80’s and 90’s–season tickets and all. I even attended the second of the four(!) consecutive Superbowls that they lost. Don’t watch much “hand-egg” anymore, but I know very well what it’s like to be a long-suffering supporter of a team that comes close but never wins, and it’s heartbreaking.

    (BTW Isaiah thanks a lot for bringing back those very traumatic memories)

  14. lyd
    April 24, 2012

    Let’s play 

    Sanchez- Cesc v- Cuenca
    Iniesta – Messi ^
    Keita – Busi v

    By this, we gain -> A. defensive solidity, B. overall flexibility in transition, C. unpredictability on offense.
    (Priorities stated in descending order for the initial stages)
    and lose-> Maestro Xavi Hernandez and the awesome Daniel Alvez! 🙁 Enough said.

    A. There is no way we can concede, especially in the first half (the worst case scenario). Having Keita and Pique back would be relief -> height wise. If Cesc (with his Epl stuff) drops back to defend corners, then we’d have 6 capable players to defend “aerial bombardment/s”! Ummm wait… No! just 5 as Busi is quite horrible in the box, despite being taller. Bad Busi!!! Baayad!:p

    Busi however (even my 8 year old brother knows), is the key to the flexibility this team possess, with or without Dani. An auxiliary CB when needed plus he’d neutralize Mata and allow the system to morph in transition (with Busi-esque ease:P). Puyol takes care of TheDear Drogba (crucial factor), little sunshine as sweeper+savior while Pique tames Ramires (more crucial factor) and daughter Keita assists everyone in defense.

    Keita has been wonderful this season, higher on morale, especially after a superb African cup of nations tourney, we’ve all more or less noticed it. This season, his movements have been silky to be honest (maybe i didn’t notice well before). That golazo vs Gijon kept us alive in liga, which brings me to point out a factor that adds to unpredictability.

    B. morphing at its finest here is demanded. We’d start off with the hunt for goal-> Stage 1: with a 1-2-3-4/1-2-2-2-3 or 3-3-4/3-4-3 or similar kind of cryptic number sets. Cesc gets to play the only role which he’s capable of- i.e the free role (plus his signature dance move to distract keeper) and Messi does exactly what his jersey no says. His jersey no. should also remind him at times about his other team mates, and that he is not on his own fighting this! Cuenca crosses less, gets behind the full back more and Sanchez just continues being awesome. Keita and Busi stay cautious for an impending counter attack. 3.5 in defense and 6.5 commits for goal. Aggression with caution!

    Stage2: -> Goal up, hopefully before half time. Morphing leads to a more conservative less aggressive setup. more like a 3-5-2/3-6-1 where Sanchez and Cuenca works like auxiliary full backs. More precisely, Sanchez switches side and neutralizes Cole and hence assists Pique. Messi goes false 9, Cesc takes up the false free role i.e gets subbed (kidding) and Keita goes advance, closer to Don Andres. Caution with aggression this time!

    Chelsea is bound to defend narrow and deep and look to break fast to lunch a counter (newsflash!! And typo intended), hence Dani cant make it to the squad. His understanding with Messi will be missed at times but Cesc is supposed to make up for it. Either Dani or Cesc plays for me. Not both.

    This will be an extremely demanding game from everyone in terms of being dynamic and that simply leaves Xavi out who is just not fit and in form lately. Let’s accept it! Im sure Pep would rest him tonight, as he played him in the clasico. I’d take assertions to one step further -> Only one out of Dani/Xavi/Cesc should play in the starting11, given players’ form and effectiveness based on chelsea’s likely setup.

    “Every disadvantage has its advantage” – Cruyff.

    However, Dani and Xavi can both come into play if only we are in->
    Stage 3 which is being 2/3 goals up. Xavi replace Cesc and Dani replace Cuenca. We play a 4-5-1 ish with Sanchez to the left. More static with 120% possession.

    C. Unpredictability:

    factor0: Iniesta in midfield. His link ups with Messi and the through balls are likely to break the damn bus.
    factor 1: Effective shots from just outside the box, with Chelsea deep and narrow. Candidates-> Keita, Cesc, Sanchez, and Messi of course!
    factor2: Long diagonal balls from Pique to Sanchez-> CBs goes deeper-> Messi-ing in action exploiting little empty spaces!
    factor3: Use of Thiago in 2nd half (for Cesc). But that happens only in stage666-> if Chelsea scores somehow. And perhaps use of Adriano and Pedro late in the game if that’s the horrible case.

    * Order of the day: Score in the first half.
    Revised order of the day: Do your thing. Have fun.

    …. So can Chelsea do it on a slick wet pitch at the Camp Nou? Can Chelsea get super lucky two games in a row? Is this Chelsea team better than that Inter team defensively?

    Game on!

    • lyd
      April 24, 2012


      Sanchez- Cesc v- Cuenca
      Iniesta – Messi ^
      Keita – Busi v

  15. How about playing a 3-4- 3 diamond as follows



    Xavi Thiago


    Sanchez Messi Pedro

    Playing Iniesta just behind Messi could be teh best way to open up space for Messi.

  16. Jafri
    April 24, 2012

    No love for the 3-5-2? I’d like to see

    Masch – Pique – Puyol
    Alves – Xavi – Busi – Iniesta – Pedro(! Please?)
    Messi – Alexis

    – Dani and Pedro providing the width on the wings and letting Alexis and Messi create chances in the middle. (*Providing everyone in this is fully fit of course)

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