Masterful Messi makes the difference as defensive errors cost Chelsea
Sometimes you just have to stand up and applaud greatness when you witness it unfold in front of your eyes. Lionel Messi finally made a meaningful mark on a Chelsea side for the first time in his career as he two goals and assist for Ousmane Dembele saw Barcelona progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League at Chelsea’s expense.
The Blues barely had time to soak up the stunning atmosphere that had manifested itself inside the Nou Camp before Lionel Messi pounced on a loose ball inside the penalty area and slotted through Thibaut Courtois’ legs. The ease at which the Argentinian found the net set the tone for things to come as it seemed impossible for the Barcelona man to score from such a tight angle but he found a way, of course he did. That goal seemed to spark the visitors into life and, in contrast to the recent performance against Manchester City, they looked threatening on the attack.
Willian and Eden Hazard led the Chelsea charges at the Barcelona goal but couldn’t find that killer pass in the final third. Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses were getting joy down the flanks and chances started to emerge for the Blues. First, an offside Olivier Giroud swiveled and shot wide before Willian had his effort saved by Marc-Andre Ter Stegan in goal. These were encouraging signs from Chelsea but the tie was about to get a whole lot tougher.
Cesc Fabregas, on his first return to the Nou Camp since leaving Barcelona in 2014, was caught in possession on the halfway line which left Messi up against both Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta about 45 yards from goal. Christensen was dealt with easily enough and Messi tried to shift the ball past the Spanish defender but Azpilicueta recovered well to jockey him as he approached the edge of the area but reinforcements were coming. Messi picked his head up to see Ousmane Dembele cascading down the right wing, laid it on a plate for him and the youngster fired in his first Barcelona goal since joining the club last summer.
Despite the two-goal margin, Chelsea continued to press forward and nearly got back into the game but Alonso could only hit his first-time effort straight at Ter Stegan before Samuel Umtiti blocked Giroud’s rebound. The visitors desperately needed an away goal before the break, just like they did six years ago when Ramires produced that sensational chip to swing the tie back in Chelsea’s favour. Giroud went down on the edge of the area and the referee blew for a free kick which was his by Alonso’s trusty left foot but, unlike his usual efforts, it crashed off the post and out of play.
The swift departures of Andres Iniesta and then Sergio Busquets just after half time would’ve given the Chelsea players some encouragement but they still struggled to take their chances. Up the other end, concentration was lost for a second by Courtois who gifted Luis Suarez the ball on the edge of his own box but the Belgian managed to keep out the former Liverpool striker’s shot. Ousmane Dembele produced a superb bit of defending in his own box when he stretched out his leg to stop Alonso having a crack from close range at the last second.
There were appeals for a Chelsea penalty minutes later when Alonso went down under the challenge of Gerard Pique but the Slovenian referee waved them away. The left wing-back was thwarted by Pique again shortly after when he blocked his powerful strike but all hope was about to die for the Blues. Cesar Azpilicueta uncharacteristically gave the ball away and Messi picked it up on the edge of the area and waltzed around the outside of the Chelsea defence before slotting it through Courtois’ legs once again to completely kill the tie off.
Antonio Conte wasn’t giving up just yet and brought on Alvaro Morata and Davide Zappacosta but it was Antonio Rudiger who came closest to a goal at the Nou Camp but his late header came back off the crossbar. The final whistle put an end to a contest that was virtually over half-an-hour before but we’ll see if Champions League football returns to Stamford Bridge next season as attention turns to making the Top Four and potentially winning the FA Cup so there’s plenty to play for yet.
As for Lionel Messi, the reaction of Antonio Conte at full time to give him plenty of adoration while embracing him said it all. Sometimes you simply have to concede defeat and recognise brilliance when you see it. The result would’ve certainly been different if it wasn’t for that magical little man, but so would football.