Game to watch – Chelsea v Barcelona
In the blue corner is the current champion of their domestic league, a side that has lost just once in their last 11 Champions League home games. In the blaugrana corner is a club that finished second in their domestic league and has not progressed past the quarter-final stage of this competition in three years.
That is a rather simplistic overview, of course. The Premier League crown has been slipping from Chelsea’s head since August, while Barcelona have responded to Real Madrid’s recent successes in resounding fashion. The Catalans travel to Stamford Bridge on Tuesday not quite as overwhelming favourites for the first leg, but certainly for the tie overall.
Not that Barcelona will take their superiority for granted. They have not beaten Chelsea since February 2006, and are seven games without a win against the Blues. This meeting naturally conjures memories of a triumphant Barcelona: Ronaldinho toe-pokes, last-minute Andres Iniesta goals and questionable Tom Henning Øvrebø performances. But Frank Lampard’s remarkable 2005 chip, Ramires’ phenomenal 2012 effort and Gary Neville’s Fernando Torres-induced goal-gasm are just as relevant.
For Chelsea, this is a first Champions League knock-out game since falling to PSG at this stage in 2016. Considering the side that lost that second leg to the Parisiens featured Branislav Ivanovic as captain, John Obi Mikel in midfield, Diego Costa up front, Kenedy at left-back and Oscar and Bertrand Traore introduced as substitutes, with Guus Hiddink as interim manager, suffice to say that much has changed.
But then plenty has stayed the same. Hiddink was at least working under the accepted proviso that his spell in charge was little more than temporary. The speculation regarding Antonio Conte has been absent since back-to-back defeats against Bournemouth and Watford, but the undercurrent of discontent remains. The club is never more than 90 minutes away from a fresh crisis.
Conte, for his part, is focused on the short-term future as opposed to the long-term. The Italian spoke last week of how Chelsea “have been analysing this team for a long time,” and that his players will need to “have the perfect game” to overcome a rampant Barcelona side.
Chelsea have every chance. This game provides the sort of spotlight Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois should relish, offers a chance for Cesc Fabregas to make his former club regret selling him, and hands either Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud an opportunity to take on a defence that has kept six clean sheets in eight games. It also gives Conte a chance at personal improvement. In his entire managerial career, he has only ever won two Champions League knock-out games – both against Celtic in 2013.
Barcelona have Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Andres Iniesta, Ousmane Dembele and, heck, Paulinho. Chelsea have a point to prove, and a crucial game against Manchester United to consider on Sunday. Yet only a fool would write them off.
Player to watch – Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi has faced 82 different clubs in his 14-year Barcelona career; he has lost more games than he has won against just two of them. And while the October 2004 Copa del Rey second-round defeat to UDA Gramenet likely eats away at him to this day, it is his inability to shake his Chelsea hoodoo that has become infamous.
Messi has faced Chelsea eight times, losing twice, drawing on five occasions and winning just once. But while Barcelona’s record against the Blues is questionable, the Premier League side has become one of the final career obstacles Messi has proven incapable of clearing. From his first appearance against Chelsea in 2006 to his most recent in 2012, he has failed to score against them each time.
Even in his incredible 73-goal 2011/12 season, Messi was thwarted by his old nemesis. His missed penalty against ten men in the second leg at the Nou Camp proved his fallibility in the midst of an historic run of form, and Chelsea went on to reach the final – and win the trophy – at Barcelona’s expense.
The Argentinean is understandably not scaling such ridiculous heights as he did six years ago, but this has been another wonderful campaign. The 30-year-old has scored or assisted 42 of Barcelona’s total 91 goals this season, excelling in spite of Suarez’s early-season slump and Dembele’s injury struggles.
Messi has won 29 trophies, many more individual trophies, and will go down as one of the greatest players in history. But he will relish the opportunity to remove one of the final blemishes on his report card. As fate is yet to hand him another meeting with UDA Gramenet, this will have to do.
Team to watch – Manchester United
Jose Mourinho is not one to set himself public targets for fear of failing to reach them. The goalposts are much easier to move if no-one knows where they were in the first place. So the Manchester United manager might not have been too pleased when updates emerged from a Manchester United conference call earlier this month.
“We lost around £10m because we qualified by winning the Europa League and so didn’t have access to half the market pool,” said chief financial officer Cliff Baty. “The club have budgeted for the quarter-finals of this season’s Champions League.”
In truth, that became the bare minimum as soon as ground was irretrievably lost to Manchester City in the Premier League. The opportunity to save face in Europe cannot be squandered.
This has been painted as a season of progress for United after two trophies and a sixth-placed finish last season, and it is impossible to argue considering they currently sit second in the table and are favourites to reach the Champions League quarter-finals. But the gap to fifth in the Premier League is now just four points, and the momentum is with Liverpool and Tottenham. Sunday’s game with Chelsea is of the utmost importance.
That, in turn, places extra pressure on Wednesday’s trip to Sevilla. United cannot afford to take their eye off domestic progress to try and aid their efforts in Europe, or vice versa. There can be no prioritisation of one competition like last season; it is a delicate balance to strike.
Manager to watch – Arsene Wenger
Does he let Eddie Nketiah score his hat-trick in 90 minutes as a starter or in 90 seconds as a second-half substitute? Decisions, decisions.
One-on-one battle to watch – Wissam Ben Yedder v Eric Bailly
‘The Beast is back!’ screamed the headline on Manchester United’s official website, hailing the return of ‘one of the best stoppers in the division,’ whose ‘campaign has been largely flawless’. Who knew Chris Smalling had even been injured?
The general reaction to Eric Bailly’s comeback is as much relief as it is excitement. The 23-year-old offers a reliable, steady hand at a time when United’s centre-halves have taken it upon themselves to provide the exact opposite. The defence looked eminently more resolute and organised with its most inexperienced member included.
United conceded four goals in the ten games Bailly started from August to early November, and the club lost just once with him in the side. Having made his return against Huddersfield in the FA Cup, albeit only in the final minute as a substitute, Mourinho must be tempted to play him in Spain. Not doing so would be the bigger risk.
Whoever does line up in the United defence will face Wissam Ben Yedder, whose six goals in the Champions League this season is behind only Cristiano Ronaldo (11), Harry Kane and Roberto Firmino (both 7). The 27-year-old is fast, skillful and enough to give a panicky defender nightmares. Just ask Liverpool: he scored three times against them in the group stages.
Football League game to watch – Bristol City v Fulham
When Bristol City eased to a 2-0 victory over Fulham in October last year, they were 4th in the Championship table. The Cottagers had slumped to 16th, and Slavisa Jokanovic’s position as manager was under intense scrutiny. Seventeen games later, they travel to Ashton Gate one place and two points above their conquerors of three months ago.
The tables have not completely turned, but they have certainly been adjusted. City are sixth and still in the play-offs despite a run of just one win in their last 11 matches in all competitions. Fulham, by comparison, have won eight and drawn the other two of their last ten in the league, including a victory over in-form Aston Villa on Saturday.
Eight clubs are within 11 points of the Championship’s final play-off spot, currently occupied by City themselves. With 14 games left of the season, wheat and chaff are about to be separated.
European game to watch – RB Leipzig v Napoli
By all means, make room for Bayern Munich v Besiktas on Tuesday and Shakhtar Donetsk v Roma on Wednesday. But Thursday brings us the meeting of two sides who, while they wasted their opportunities in the Champions League, remain two of Europe’s most exciting teams.
Leipzig finished third in their group behind Besiktas and Porto, while Napoli were pushed out by Manchester City and Shakhtar. Both were disappointed not to reach the knock-out stages, but the Europa League offered an intriguing lifeline.
Napoli saw it as anything but in the first leg. Maurizio Sarri made five changes in Naples, resting Dries Mertens and only introducing Lorenzo Insigne as a second-half substitute. They took the lead, only for Leipzig to emerge 3-1 victors.
Their priorities are likely to remain in Serie A, where they hold a one-point lead over Juventus with 13 games remaining. But the fringe players chosen to start in Germany must take their chance to impress this time around.