Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Barcelona vs Chelsea: second leg preview

After Chelsea’s largely unpredicted first leg victory over the current Spanish, European and World Champions last week at Stamford Bridge, the tie hinges on the game at the Nou Camp. Barcelona’s loss against Real Madrid at the weekend has all but ruled out La Liga for them this season which gives the remaining competitions they are still involved in, the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League, an extra importance for them to have a successful end of season.
Line ups

Guardiola’s side is very hard to call this season. The El Clasico on Saturday produced two more surprises in the line up, with Thiago Alcantara appearing in midfield and Cristian Tello on the left of a front three.
The first important decision for Guardiola will be whether Pique returns into defence. Playing him alongside Mascherano will certainly help them for pace against Chelsea’s counter attacks and their ability to cover behind the full backs will be useful if they lose the ball high up. If they play with a back four, the left back slot will either be taken by Adriano or Puyol. If it’s the later, it could pave the way for Pique to start at the back.
Further up the pitch we may see a fairly similar line up to the one in the first leg. Busquets and Xavi usually start in midfield and will probably start again here. The front line is where Guardiola will look to impose his strategy. Cuenca and/or Pedro may start to provide width and stretch Chelsea laterally to create space in the middle. Whether this happens or whether Iniesta starts again on the left and Alexis on the right, it will be interesting to see how he sets out. As will whether Fabregas starts, and if so, what role he will play. The signing from last summer has played a number of different roles since joining, mainly as either a false striker or a midfielder with the allowance to move forward, generally towards the left.
If Guardiola decides for more penetration out wide, the chances are that only one of Pedro or Cuenca will start – if both were to start then that would probably mean no place in the line up for both Fabregas and Alexis and with the two of them only starting on the bench against Real Madrid, the chances are that one, if not both will start here.
Both sides had tough weekend games, against Real Madrid and Arsenal respectively but Chelsea changed eight of the starting eleven that beat Barcelona last Wednesday. The idea that they will start with the same line up as the first leg is most definitely possible.

Though Sturridge has generally been preferred on the right this season with his pace, Mata’s ability to go between the lines behind midfielders and tendency to defend better inside than out (Barcelona’s full backs move higher on the right than on the left) to make it compact inside will probably give him the edge, as will his selflessness on the ball and ability to play the right pass, something very important if Chelsea are to use counter attacks. Ramires had a very good game on the left in the first leg, with his energy and vertical runs behind Alves very useful in causing problems for Barcelona. The three of Meireles, Mikel and Lampard defended the middle well and stayed compact for most of the game to make it difficult for Barca to pass through the midfield and break their lines. With Luiz injured, Cahill and Terry will probably be preferred at the back and Cole and Ivanovic also played well in the first leg, though the later had some problems with Iniesta’s control and low centre of gravity on that side.
The question of who will take up the forward role will probably be the most interesting for Chelsea. Drogba caused Barcelona a number of problems on occasions behind the defenders and with his direct strength against the centre backs. With Barcelona’s lack of height an issue in defending set pieces, he could play an important role for that as well. However Torres’s skill at creating space for himself moving deep or behind defenders, his direct running 1v1 as well as his work rate and his improved team work could be an important factor if Di Matteo were to use him from the start. Drogba is the favourite to play though.

The first thing will be whether Guardiola will play three or four at the back. Against Real Madrid he played three but with Busquets able to drop in to make a four defensively. If Pique were to start, it may well be that Puyol is moved to left back with Mascherano staying with Pique in the middle.
Particularly with the back three, it is very important to have runners from midfield to create space. Barcelona haven’t done this well enough generally in the last two matches and as such have struggled to create space for Messi in the middle. Whether they actually change tactics too much from the first leg will be interesting. Though Chelsea defended well, the Catalan side still created four or five very good opportunities. At home, with a slightly bigger pitch and playing in front of their home fans, the approach may well be fairly similar.

They will as usual dominate possession and use frequent switches of play with quick link ups to change the angle of approach. Whether they try and stretch the pitch a bit better, laterally and vertically, remains to be seen. Michael Laudrup and Rafa Benitez spoke in the Sky Sports studio on Saturday about the lack of runners, both behind and then taking advantage of the space from midfield. It was only when Alexis came on that Barcelona looked like they could penetrate the space:

Alexis stretching length, allowing Messi space to run into

Messi has space to run into and is not challenged till just outside the area. Meanwhile Iniesta moves forward to penetrate in the space created.
This creation of space will be vital to Barcelona's attack and if they can stretch the play, it allows space for players like Iniesta and Xavi to take advantage of, as seen by Xavi's goal against Santos in December:
Alves takes the ball out wide, Messi (circled) makes a run into the area.Behind him, Xavi makes a run untracked from midfield.

As Dani Alves takes on the full back, Messi has provided length, pushing the centre back deep, while Xavi moves into the space.

Xavi now has plenty of space just outside the area for a pass and it forces the right back to move inside to close down which leaves Thiago free on the left.

Meanwhile Chelsea will have to decide how offensive they will be. 1-0 going into an away game gives a difficult quandary for a manager. Do you defend for the draw, or try and give yourself the opportunity to get a goal? Chelsea will probably have to get a goal and their plan may well be similar to that of the first leg, looking for opportunities to regain the ball and counter attack quickly in the wide areas and use set pieces to take advantage of their height.
In the first leg they reverted back to a 4-3-3 that defended as a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-5-1, with little space for Barca to penetrate between the lines, leaving Messi to drop deep to receive the ball. Here, they will most probably go with the same shape with all five midfielders defending and the forward defending just in front of them. It will be very important for Chelsea not to defend too deep which would allow Barcelona to keep the pressure up and make it difficult to counter attack. With Mata moving between the lines, and Ramires making quick runs into the space on the left, they have the ability to counter attack well if they want but they will have to concentrate on not giving the home side space to penetrate in the final third.

Concluding point

Barcelona are probably still favourites despite Chelsea's one-goal advantage. The away side will most probably have to score to go through and will have to make sure their attack is always a threat. Barcelona will create chances and it is up to Chelsea to limit them and give themselves a good chance of going through.

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