x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emphasis from Chelsea will be to crowd Barcelona out

There should be no tactical surprises from Barcelona, who play the same passing, pressing game every match, or Chelsea, who have no option but to aim for an action replay.

Lionel Messi, centre, and his Barcelona teammates will try find innumerable ways to penetrate the Chelsea defence. Glyn Kirk / AFP
Lionel Messi, centre, and his Barcelona teammates will try find innumerable ways to penetrate the Chelsea defence. Glyn Kirk / AFP

Jacques Santini's brief and undistinguished time as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur was notable for his inability to speak English.

Nevertheless, albeit inadvertently, he was notable for an addition to the footballing lexicon. After an unadventurous Spurs performance at Stamford Bridge, Jose Mourinho complained he "parked the bus" in front of the visitors' goal.

Last Wednesday, Barcelona encountered their own parking problems in West London. Roberto Di Matteo's tactics were borrowed from Mourinho and Guus Hiddink, the other Chelsea managers who have troubled the Catalans in the past, but also owed something to Santini. Di Matteo opted for all-out defence, a policy that was vindicated as his side kept a clean sheet and Didier Drogba pilfered a goal to give them a first-leg lead.

Now they are 90 minutes away from reaching the Uefa Champions League final, their progress dependent upon tonight's clash of prolific purism against practised pragmatism.

There should be no tactical surprises from Barcelona, who play the same passing, pressing game every match, or Chelsea, who have no option but to aim for an action replay.

Whereas their 2009 semi-final was a meeting of evenly matched, but very different sides, now the balance of power has changed. Silverware and superlatives have been Barcelona's constant companions while Chelsea are no longer the physical force of old.

But the qualities they do possess in abundance - experience, battle-hardened resolve, ferocious determination and enormous tactical discipline - were put to good use. Perhaps it is an acceptance of inferiority but Di Matteo also displayed common sense. Chelsea cannot out-Barcelona Barcelona. It would be foolish to try.

What they can do is to defend deep, ensuring John Terry's lack of pace is less of an issue, and narrow. By bringing the full-backs Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole closer to the central defenders, it makes it harder for Barcelona to thread passes through the back four.

By using three central midfielders to screen them, as Raul Meireles, John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard did last week, they can pack the part of the pitch that is Barcelona's preferred sphere of influence, the area from which Xavi and Andres Iniesta aim to supply the final ball and where Lionel Messi's mesmerising solo runs tend to gather pace.

The aim is to crowd Barca out, to ensure that an eye-of-the-needle pass is needed to pierce the defence and to ensure that two or three tacklers converge on individual runners.

To some degree, Chelsea can neglect their right flank; Barcelona attack less on their left, so Ivanovic can tuck in (and, like Santini's full-backs, never cross the halfway line). Ahead of him, Juan Mata worked unselfishly, but there is a case for asking Salomon Kalou to do a shift of hard labour instead.

On the left, Di Matteo's masterstroke was to ask Ramires to switch wings. Daniel Alves, part sprinter, part distance runner, is a one-man right flank for Barcelona, but his fellow Brazilian has similar physical attributes.

Cole's pace, meanwhile, means he can be both a rare attacking outlet and able to get back when Barcelona break. The loneliest job of all is the lone striker's, separated from his colleagues by up to 40 yards. Drogba, fast, powerful and able to waste time, executed it to perfection last week.

Besides the methodology, the mentality matters. No matter how well a team defends, Barcelona will always create some chances. The key is to restrict them, to hope they don't fall the way of the 63-goal Messi and for a goalkeeper to be in form, as Petr Cech has been. It is not a fail-safe strategy but, as Mourinho's Inter Milan proved two years ago, it is possible to beat Barcelona without the ball.

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