Before their stumble in the away London derby game against West Ham, Chelsea had won six and drawn one of their previous seven matches, including the Alvaro Morata header-inspired 1-0 home victory over Manchester United.
And yet, the chances of retaining the League looked all but improbable even before the defeat to The Hammers because of Manchester City’s imperious form and its formidable fourteen-point lead over third-placed Chelsea. As things (read current form and points tally) stand, Chelsea - or any other team for that matter — can win the League only if City themselves decide to squander the advantage.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte seemed to have thrown in the towel for the title race after the defeat at the London Stadium:
“When you lose four games my experience, my previous experience tells me that it’s impossible to fight for the title. In 16 games to lose four games it means the target must be another.”
But Chelsea supporters need not drop their shoulders. They should see this as an opportunity. With the League defence prospects all but evaporated, Antonio Conte can opt to give his all to the biggest one of them all - the Champions League.
Of course, a 1-1 home draw with Athletico Madrid at home in the last group stage match meant that Chelsea’s horror show in Rome has came back to haunt them, as they finished second in the group - and got paired with Barcelona in the 16 draw.
The first leg will take place at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday February 20 and Chelsea will travel to the Nou Camp on Wednesday March 14.
Not the best way to start the knock-out stage, right?
Yes; and no. Chelsea are one of the bogey teams for Barcelona, if you subscribe to the term. The 2011 Champions League Champions from London, who had broken Barcelona hearts with a come-from-behind win in the second leg of that year’s semi final at the Camp Nou, are unbeaten in the their last seven matches with the Catalan giants. How many teams boast of statistics like that!
The two sides have met 15 times previously, with the bragging rights being split almost unnaturally evenly - five wins apiece for the two sides and five draws. Beat that in terms of offering an even contest.
Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde has already expressed his respect for the opposition and singled out the threat that Alvaro Morata poses to his side in the last-16 tie:
“It’s a tough draw for us because of the magnitude of the opposition. With the signing of Morata they’ve added pace in attack, while (Eden) Hazard is very good between the lines.”
What makes things very interesting in the meeting of the two former champions is the record of Lionel Messi. Royal blue goalpost is certainly his most favourite target. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner is yet to score against the reigning Premier League champions in his eight attempts thus far! And what do they say about all Messi teams - stop Leo and you win more than half the battle against Barca. Or some percentage of that.
Of course, it is never that straight-forward. But the point is, unlike what the ‘armchair (read “social media”) experts’ might tell you, this is a tie that can go either way.
Antonio Conte alluded to something similar in a press conference when he exhorted his players, especially the mercurial Eden Hazard, to go for it across the two legs against Barcelona:
“The tie will see Eden Hazard come up against Lionel Messi and Conte has issued a war cry to his most influential player and his team-mates. ’This type of game is a good chance for every player to show the right value, not only for Hazard, but for every player in the right way.”
Even prior to the clarion call by the boss, the Blues dressing room was prepared for the pairing - and is said to be not too daunted by the task ahead.
But if the assured calm needs to kick the talk on the pitch, there will have to be a couple of additions to the squad during the January transfer window. Conte has gone hoarse crying for reinforcements since the beginning of the season. With the Premier League defence probably gone, the Chelsea hierarchy might finally heed to the request.
But the simple action now could prove to be a tricky one - what with most A-listers would’ve already played the group stages of the Champions League, making them ineligible to play for Chelsea in this season. So, while a Sandro from Juventus is a must for the long term, short and mightily important objectives demand Chelsea augment their defence (David Luiz suspect and Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill both not the most reliable currently) and midfield (since Tiémoué Bakayoko clearly needs more time) with immense talents from sides that have not featured in this year’s Champions League.
Consider this - four very good matches out of the remaining seven, and Chelsea could actually be a champion. I know you are thinking, “if wishes were horses”. But the emphasis is not here on the number of matches. It is about how straight-forward, though not easy by any stretch of imagination, it is to plan - as against planning for 22 more matches in the Premier League.
By the time you read this, Chelsea would have already played Huddersfield Town at the John Smith’s Stadium. Another loss for Chelsea can really put everything at stake, but a win might offer precious little to change the eventual fate. And that is indeed the point of this piece.