Weblog: The football punter
Back Barcelona to
edge Bridge battle
Champions League last-16 first leg
BT Sport 2, 7.45pm
Finding the net against Chelsea is one of Lionel Messi’s rare weaknesses though even if the magical Argentinian doesn't score at Stamford Bridge, his Barcelona buddies should be backed to bail him out.
Despite playing eight times against Chelsea, racking up 655 minutes and 29 shots, Messi is yet to score against the London giants.
A missed penalty at Camp Nou the last time they met in the Champions League in 2011-12 was as close as he has come – and it was a costly blunder.
Chelsea went on to win that semi-final 3-2 on aggregate and lift the trophy, and it’s a defeat that has gnawed away at Barcelona ever since.
Six seasons on they get their chance of payback and they look ideally equipped to take a first-leg lead back to Spain.
Barcelona are pretty much invincible this season. They are unbeaten in 24 La Liga matches and lead that division by seven points. They have shipped just 11 goals. They are still in the Copa del Rey and went unbeaten through their Champions League group, conceding just once in six matches.
Against pretty much anyone they would be odds-on, home or away, and Chelsea aren't exactly a force at the moment.
Antonio Conte is under enormous pressure and back-to-back hammerings of pathetic pair West Brom and Hull have merely bought the Italian time.
Prospective Chelsea backers – and certainly their fans – will argue that the Blues revel in backs-to-the-wall efforts when they are being written off. The comeback from 3-1 down against Napoli, the aforementioned 2-2 draw at Barcelona when down to ten men and the final against an infinitely superior Bayern Munich are just three examples.
But, rather like Messi’s non-scoring record against them, those performances were back in the mists of time.
What is now relevant is that Barca look supreme under Ernesto Valverde and Chelsea have been out of sorts. An inspired performance from Eden Hazard could lift them and N'Golo Kante has the game to disrupt the Spanish giants.
Yes, they have a will to win that deserves appreciation, but there will be no complacency among Valverde’s side because Barca have pinned everything this season on winning back their European crown.
It will be fascinating to see how the sides approach the game, presumably with Barca doing all the probing and Chelsea looking for joy on the counter.
Certainly teams seem to be getting better at stifling the Catalans, who have scored only six goals in their last five matches. Those five games have all produced under 2.5 goals, which is an even-money chance.
That would fly in the face of what we saw last week – all four first-leg ties produced four goals or more – and last season, when six of the eight round-of-16 first legs copped for over 2.5 backers.
But Chelsea will be resolute and determined to stay in the match and, therefore, the tie.
But Messi and Luis Suarez, with 37 league goals between them, have the tools to break through at some point. No matter what the history books tell us.