LAHORE: Last night at Stamford Bridge, Conte’s and Chelsea’s defensive counter-attacking masterclass was on display. Yet, so was Barcelona’s deadly instinct.
Willian’s superb goal, after two wondrous shots off the post in the first half, had squeezed Chelsea a lead after a period of threatening play. 15 minutes before time, 21-year-old Andreas Christensen’s rare mistake presented Barça with an opportunity. At the helm, were Iniesta and Messi. Only one outcome could be envisaged. What followed was Lionel Messi’s first goal against these opponents at the ninth attempt and handed the unbeaten leaders of La Liga the advantage in the tie, with Ernesto Valverde’s side having won all their home games in Europe to date this season.
“We paid dearly for one mistake because we were very close to playing the perfect game,” said Conte, whose side now faces daunting Premier League matches at both Manchester clubs. “But, against this quality of opponent, if you make a mistake you pay. At the end of the game we are disappointed with the final result. But, at the same time, this game must give us a lot of confidence to trust that, in the second leg, qualification is open.
“It won’t be easy, we must be realistic because we are talking about Barcelona, and they showed they are a fantastic, strong team tonight. But we showed, too, that if we work very hard together defensively, but at the same time win the ball and create the chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at Nou Camp.”
“If you want to face Barcelona box to box, you are crazy,” he further added. “You’ll go on to lose the game 4-0, 5-0, 6-0, so you must be intelligent. My players are not stupid. They followed the programme we prepared and understood the plan. A coach can have a fantastic plan but, if the players don’t believe in this plan, you are dead. But my team were excellent. Barcelona were fighting so hard to create a chance, and then one mistake opened us up.”
Barca were largely blunted by a solid defensive performance from Chelsea, who created the better chances and saw Willian hit the post twice in the first half.
Messi’s goal means Chelsea must score in the return leg at the Camp Nou on March 14 to have any chance of progressing further in Europe’s elite competition.
“The good thing is that we managed to get an error out of them and we got an equaliser. We go back to the Camp Nou happy,” said FC Barcelona’s ever calm manager. “I think the equaliser was very important. They might be happy with the result and we have to be respectful of their style of play. They pressed us very high and made life difficult for us. We will see what happens in the return leg. The away goal was not definitive but it was significant.”
“It was a clash of styles,” said Valverde. “Two very different teams. We had lots of possession close to their area but after the first few minutes they began to start testing us on the counter-attack. “We were just lacking a bit of quality in the final third and they defended very well. There was a lot of traffic around their box and we struggled to break through. We just lacked clear-cut chances.”