It took him 730 minutes, but finally Lionel Messi has found the net against Chelsea
Lionel Messi’s cool 75th minute finish ensured Barcelona will return to Catalunya with the advantage after securing a 1-1 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in their Champions League second round first leg clash.
Antonio Conte’s excellent counter-attacking game plan was undone by one misplaced pass from young defender Andreas Christensen, picked upon by Andres Iniesta, who teed up Messi to finish with aplomb.
Willian had handed Chelsea the lead in the 62nd minute, firing home from 20 yards to hand the Blues a deserved lead, the Brazilian having already twice hit the post
Now, at Camp Nou in three weeks, Conte’s men have it all to do.
Here are the key talking points from Stamford Bridge…
1. Conte rolled the dice with attacking personnel
The Chelsea boss made the bold decision with his starting XI to not go with a recognised striker, preferring to use Hazard as the focal point of the Blues’ attack, with both Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata on the substitutes’ bench.
Having gone with a 3-5-1-1 formation for much of this season, Conte returned to last season’s 3-4-3 formation against the Blaugrana, with Hazard flanked by Willian and Pedro.
The decision left Chelsea legend Frank Lampard slightly perplexed: “I think Chelsea signed Morata for £60million-£70million – so he has to be your option in these big games.
“But I do think he has the movement. He’s a big lad as well, so he’s got that threat. But he’s got the movement to test Barcelona in behind and you want to do that.”
But after the Spaniard’s recent injury, Conte elected to make Hazard central, opting for his deftness and ability to drop off the front, rather than someone to stand up against Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti. Unfortunately, Hazard’s impact on the match was limited.
Equally, much has been made of Cesc Fabregas’ ability to play in a central midfield two over the last 18-24 months. Here, with Tiemoue Bakayoko injured, Conte asked the Spaniard to play a disciplined role alongside N’Golo Kante in a partnership.
2. But shape and organisation at the heart of display
It’s not often when Chelsea will have so much less possession than their opponents, particularly at home.
But Conte seemed happy for his side to cede the ball to their visitors, retreating to close gaps in a low block.
Often, Barca’s defence and holding midfield pair – Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic – were allowed to take the ball unmanned. But the moment the latter pair looked to pass the ball into the final third, they found a five defenders and four midfielders, with little space in between, fronting them up.
That meant little space between the lines for Messi and saw Suarez suffocated whenever the ball came within his vicinity, and allowed the Blues to break with pace and directness, notably through Willian and Pedro.
3. Willian steps into starring role
Since joining Chelsea for £30million from Anzhi Makhachkala in 2013 Willian has made over 220 appearances for the Blues.
But, now 29, it’s fair to say that he’s never really been a guaranteed starter at Stamford Bridge. There was an 18-month spell under Jose Mourinho where he was in the side most weeks, and in the ill-fated final months of Mourinho’s second stint he was the Blues’ star man, but often it’s been others in the spotlight with him playing the role of backing singer.
But he is always there to produce the goods when called upon and in one-v-one situations, he’s a nightmare for defenders to deal with.
He was key to Chelsea here, his driving runs causing Barcelona all sorts of problems; Ivan Rakitic took a yellow card in the first-half as Willian advanced on the Barca back four.
He also rattled the woodwork, twice with clever footwork followed by a pair of devilish efforts. His goal, coming via a similar method – touch, shift, hit – was excellent. On a night where Hazard was below his best, he excelled.
4. Messi finally breaks his duck
It’s taken him 730 minutes. That’s 12 hours and 10 minutes.
But finally, with his 30th shot, Lionel Messi scored against Chelsea.
And when Iniesta cut the ball back to the Argentine, you didn’t expect there to be any other outcome.
5. In praise of Iniesta
He’s 33 now.
The acceleration isn’t what it once was. The hair has thinned over the years, the face looks a little more weary after years at the very top level, fighting for trophy after trophy, dealing with the fact that defeat, any defeat, simply isn’t good enough.
He doesn’t dominate matches the way he once did, putting opponents on that carousel.