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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Chelsea v Barcelona: Conte should pick Giroud ahead of Morata

Spaniard's frustration was evident in his dismissal for dissent against Norwich City, and his manager now has what he considers a viable alternative - Frenchman who previously played for Arsenal

Olivier Giroud could well define his legacy at Chelsea. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
Olivier Giroud could well define his legacy at Chelsea. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

It is a unique distinction. Only one footballer owned by Real Madrid has scored against Barcelona in a Uefa Champions League final. Indeed, only two current players have struck against the Catalans in club football’s biggest game.

Both got an equaliser in what proved a 3-1 defeat. First Wayne Rooney in 2011 and then, four years later, Alvaro Morata.

The Spaniard pounced on the rebound after Rooney’s former sidekick Carlos Tevez had a shot parried. Morata was lining up for Juventus, but he was on loan from Madrid.

Chelsea’s ties with Barcelona tend to be packed with drama. They often have an irresistible sense of narrative. They can be defined by fractiousness. Adding a Madridista to the mix would offer another compelling subplot, even without the suggestions in the Spanish media that Barcelona wanted to sign Morata last summer but Madrid refused to sell to a rival.

Yet Antonio Conte should resist the temptation. His Spanish striker has made two largely forgettable cameos since returning from a back injury. He has not started since January 13, not scored in 2018. His best has been very good, his big-game pedigree proved with crucial goals in wins against Atletico Madrid and Manchester United, but his form has tailed off in a way that has felt predictable.

Morata was a deluxe substitute last year. He never had to shoulder the burden of leading a line alone all season. His last 25 outings have produced just five goals. His frustration was evident in his dismissal for dissent against Norwich City.

And Conte now has what he considers a viable alternative. Not playing Eden Hazard as a false nine, an occasionally inspired ploy which nonetheless adds to the dependence on his best player. And not Michy Batshuayi, prolific for Borussia Dortmund, but never truly trusted at Stamford Bridge.

But Olivier Giroud, whose time at Arsenal has given him a 100 per cent record against Barcelona – two games, two defeats – and in the Champions League’s last 16, exiting at this phase every year.

Yet after the most inauspicious of bows, in Chelsea’s embarrassing 4-1 defeat at Watford, the Frenchman has excelled since swapping north London for west. He has explained and justified Conte’s innate preference for a target man.

The Italian tends to talk about a “point of reference” and that is how Chelsea have treated Giroud, involving him, referring to him in moves. He had contributed to three goals in two games before opening his account in Friday’s 4-0 win over Hull City.

They have used his ability to pin defenders. They have played off him and around him, skipping onto his lay-offs and running into the space behind him. Hazard, in particular, likes being teamed with a target man, playing a one-two and skipping away from defenders to collect the return pass.

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The early impressions – and yes, against a West Bromwich Albion side at the foot of the Premier League and a Hull team perhaps headed for League One – are that Chelsea suit a target man better than a more fluid, less direct Arsenal ever did. He looks fresher than Morata.

In time, Chelsea will be confronted with the Giroud paradox, the problem of a man almost but not quite good enough to be the first-choice forward for an elite side, who scores a commendable number of goals but nowhere near as many as Harry Kane or Sergio Aguero, and alight, as Arsene Wenger did, on the Giroud solution, given his potency as a substitute.

For now, however, the man bought as a back-up should be starting. Morata, who left Madrid to escape a world of cameos, ought to be back on the bench. Despite that pedigree against Barcelona, his £57 million (Dh293.3m) price tag and his status as Chelsea’s record buy. It is the sort of choice that could define a reign.

Chelsea’s underdogs first require it to decide a tie in their favour.