Premier League Preview: Gameweek 31
It might surprise a few people, but Chelsea’s away record this season, for a defending Premier League champion, is incredibly poor.
The Blues have won just three times away from Stamford Bridge since mid-November in domestic competition; 4-0 against Brighton in January, 3-1 at Huddersfield in December and a 4-0 victory at West Brom in November.
The latter was followed four days later by their last away win in the Champions League, another 4-0 at Qarabag.
When they win on the road, they do it well, but it’s happened far too infrequently for Antonio Conte’s side.
In trying to qualify for the quarterfinals of the premier European competition, Chelsea have to beat a Barcelona side that haven’t lost at the Camp Nou since Real Madrid defeated them in the Supercopa de Espana back on August 13 last year.
For league or continental competition, one needs to go back even further. Right back to September 10, 2016 in fact, when Barca were stunned 2-1 by Alaves.
That is the size of the task facing the west Londoners.
One glimmer of hope for them is that Andres Iniesta is unlikely to recover from a hamstring injury. Though the Catalans will give him right up until the last minute, any element of risk rules him out.
Evidently, Barca are a better and more dynamic team with their captain in situ, but on the flip side, Lionel Messi comes into the match fresh after missing the weekend fixture at Malaga to witness the birth of his third son, Ciro.
In the first leg, Ernesto Valverde went with Paulinho to shore up the midfield, but the Brazilian’s presence seemed to slow things down and allow Chelsea to regroup quickly.
If it’s a physical presence that he requires in that area again, then Andre Gomes would be the only other option the coach would consider, but he hasn’t been at his best this season either.
Chelsea know they have to score and so may start the game differently to the first leg. They’re certainly capable of holding onto a lead, so expect Eden Hazard and Willian to be the busiest on the pitch in the early exchanges.
The pair will look to expose Barcelona’s lack of pace centrally, and with Gerard Pique still playing through the pain barrier, that would appear to be Chelsea’s best line of attack. Ex-Barca man, Pedro, will also help in this regard.
With Conte likely to settle for another mobile and compact 3-4-2-1, Valverde needs to figure out a way of opening up the lines between Andreas Christensen and his two full-backs.
Ousmane Dembele is beginning to slow flashes of the player the Blaugrana believe he can be, and perhaps the young Frenchman will be given the chance to test himself against Chelsea. He certainly did his chances of featuring no harm at all after his best performance in a Barca shirt at Malaga.
On a much wider pitch, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba will get forward at will, and the connection that both have with Messi and Suarez will hold the keys to the game.
Chelsea will play on the break but being overly defensive will probably hinder rather than help them.
You shouldn’t ignore the 22/1 shot that is Suarez to score first and Barca to win 1-0. Great value!