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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Chelsea face Barcelona in similar circumstances to 2012 as Conte faces striker dilemma

An Italian manager unsure of his future, an expensive striker struggling for goals, outside of the Premier League top four and facing a high-flying Barca side

Eden Hazard, left, and Willian, centre, are expected to have key roles to play when Chelsea take on Barcelona on Wednesday. Will Oliver / EPA
Eden Hazard, left, and Willian, centre, are expected to have key roles to play when Chelsea take on Barcelona on Wednesday. Will Oliver / EPA

There are probably better circumstances under which to travel to Camp Nou for a deciding tie in the Uefa Champions League than Chelsea’s.

A manager from Italy whose long-term hold on his position seems fragile; their proud status as English champions feeling so far back in the distance it seems part of a bygone era. An alarming slip, in late February, out of the top four places in the Premier League, leaves the club fearful the only way into Europe’s principal tournament in the season ahead may be from winning it.

Oh, and they have a crisis at centre-forward, where their expensive Spanish striker seems jammed into a deep trough of barren form and apparently ebbing confidence.

All this perfectly describes … well, it actually describes the Chelsea of April 2012, an apparently brittle, inconsistent team who went to Barcelona for the second leg of a European Cup semi-final, and soon lost the initial momentum they had from a positive showing in the home 90 minutes soon.

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Read more:

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Olivier Giroud 'adapting well' at Chelsea and is confident the goals will follow

World Cup on the agenda when Chelsea travel to Barcelona: UCL talking points

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They went behind on aggregate and had their captain sent off. The story after that was one few would have predicted. A comeback with 10 men, Barcelona eliminated and an improbable first ever Champions League title a few weeks later for a threadbare line-up representing what was then the fifth best club in the English top flight.

The echoes from then to now are numerous enough they might interpreted as a positive omen. This Chelsea are outside the Premier League’s top four; this Barcelona are among the very top favourites to win this Champions League; this Chelsea have a restless Italian manager, Antonio Conte; that Chelsea had the Italian Roberto Di Matteo in charge, a stopgap, who was gone within the year.

This Chelsea have accumulating concerns about Spain international striker Alvaro Morata, their most expensive recruit, whose early impact on English football has given way to a long run of ineffectiveness in front of goal; that 2012 Chelsea were increasingly vexed by the form of their then most expensive buy, the Spaniard who had once electrified the Premier League, Fernando Torres.

What makes the 2018 Chelsea’s bid to oust Barca from the Champions League distinct from the improbable 2012 coup, is that they arrive in Catalonia with a 1-1 scoreline to attack, while six years ago, the had a 1-0 advantage in their travel baggage, though it was quickly erased.

Di Matteo’s Chelsea then doggedly, ruggedly – besides John Terry’s dismissal, they picked up six yellow cards – blocked and counter-attacked their way to improbable qualification. Lionel Messi struck a penalty against the crossbar when the score stood at 2-2 on aggregate, and Chelsea’s counter-attacking heroes, with the two goals on the night, were the unsung Brazilian Ramires and Torres, on as a late substitute.

The Brazilian Willian, sometimes unsung, has given Chelsea their best lifeline, a goal, in this tie so far and his form, five goals in his last five matches, must recommend his inclusion in a starting XI which Conte confesses has set some dilemmas.

“Before this type of game it is important to involve the players and to listen,” said Conte about his team selection. Nobody needed to listen too hard for clues from Eden Hazard, after the first leg, about Hazard’s discomfort at a tactical arrangement that thrust the Belgian into the centre of the forward line, as spearhead, or so-called "false nine".

As for a real No 9, Morata, back in his native Spain, who he hopes to lead the line for at the World Cup in June, is very much where Torres was in the spring of 2012. Both were left on the bench for the first legs against Barcelona; both had run out of goals (Morata has added none to his 2017 tally of 12 for Chelsea; Torres had scored one in the league in all of 2012 before he struck at Camp Nou).

Should Conte back Morata? Or the nimble Pedro, formerly of Barcelona? Or neither? The Italian will give considerable thought to playing Olivier Giroud, the January signing from Arsenal, who has already been applying his facility at holding up play beneficially for the likes of Hazard and William, who like to pick up the ball in and around the penalty box.

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