Antonio Conte’s side performed well over the two legs of their Champions League last-16 tie but they were ruthlessly punished for silly errors
Lionel Messi wrote another chapter in his story as the greatest footballer of all time with a marvellous display at Camp Nou on Wednesday night but he could not have done it without Chelsea, who contributed to their own downfall with a succession of costly mistakes.
The Blues didn’t look significantly inferior to their conquerors over the two legs of this Champions League last-16 tie and the final 4-1 aggregate scoreline felt harsh. As manager Antonio Conte said afterwards, “I must be pleased for the commitment of my players. I am very proud because they gave everything tonight and maybe we didn’t deserve to lose 3-0.
“I think tonight and in these two legs Messi made the difference. As you know very well we are talking about the best player in the world. They were very, very clinical and tonight I think we created many chances but we didn’t take them.”
Indeed, the game merely underlined that Chelsea lack the ruthlessness and concentration required to win a trophy of this grandeur.
They may have worn their white kits in Catalunya, evoking memories of that famous night in Catalunya in 2012 when they upset Barca on their way to winning the trophy, but they got nowhere near emulating that success and, frustratingly, they only had themselves to blame in that regard.
Thibaut Courtois’s howler after two minutes and eight seconds – the Chelsea No.1 was beaten at his near post by low strike from Messi that the Belgian admitted afterwards he simply hadn’t anticipated – made an already difficult task close to impossible.
Lionel Messi then picked Cesc Fabregas’ pocket in midfield before speeding past both Cesar Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen to set up Ousmane Dembele for his first Barca goal to leave the English champions needing to score twice to progress.
Azpilicueta’s poor pass led to another goal for Messi, who once again fired through the open legs of Courtois to kill all hope for the Blues midway through the second half.
It was another night where Messi set records for himself, scoring both his fastest and then his 100th Champions League goal. He also emphatically ended Chelsea’s eight-game unbeaten run against Barcelona, who extended their unbeaten streak at home in the Champions League to 25 games in the process.
They were good value for the victory, having punished nearly every single error the visitors made. Indeed, the only mistake that the Blues got away with was when Luis Suarez shot straight at Courtois after the Belgian had gifted the Blaugrana possession with a poor clearance.
Messi, though, was in no mood to pass up any chances. The Catalan crowd had unfurled a banner before kick-off which read ‘God Save The King’ and the Argentine attacker was certainly at his majestic best against Chelsea, ending his unwanted record of never having scored against the Blues in emphatic fashion with three lethal finishes over the course of the two legs.
Messi almost always takes his chances and that’s exactly why Antonio Conte called for his team to produce two perfect games to have any chance of navigating their way past one of the favourites to win this year’s Champions League. Despite two valiant efforts, though, the Blues were far from flawless.
In fairness, Conte had asked for his team’s opinion on the line-up and playing style ahead of the return fixture and, unlike the last time he did so, against Roma in October, it worked well.
Chelsea were good over both legs, with Conte slightly altering the plan from the first to play Olivier Giroud up front at Camp Nou, which led to the side using the ball a bit better.
Football is a cruel game, though, and Chelsea didn’t really have their fair share of luck, striking the woodwork four times, as well as having a solid penalty appeal turned down in the second half in Catalunya.
But the game is decided by little details at this level of the game and despite huge performances from the likes of Willian, N’Golo Kante and Cesar Azpilicueta over two legs, Chelsea didn’t do enough to win.
Obviously, unlike Manchester United, they can at least exit the Champions League with their heads held high but their last-16 elimination will no doubt sting, primarily because they will know that this defeat had as much to do with their own mistakes as the magnificent Messi.
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