Lionel Messi’s first goal in nine Champions League games against Chelsea gave Barcelona a vital away goal as they rode their luck to earn a draw in this last-16 tie at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea had subdued Messi and Willian had struck the woodwork twice in the first half before a fine low finish from the edge of the area made it third-time lucky for the Brazilian and gave Antonio Conte’s side a deserved lead after 62 minutes.
Barcelona had barely threatened but a misplaced pass from Andreas Christensen gave Andres Iniesta the opportunity to allow Messi to end that 730-minute drought against Chelsea with a crisp left-foot drive 15 minutes from time.
It was cruel on Chelsea after an outstanding display – but gives Barca the advantage of an away goal for the return leg at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, 14 March.
The result at Stamford Bridge does mean that none of the English teams have lost in their last-16 first-leg ties so far.
In tonight’s other Champions League match, German champions Bayern Munich thrashed Besiktas 5-0 after the Turkish side had Domagoj Vida sent off in the 16th minute.
Conte’s master plan almost pays off
Chelsea and Conte knew they needed a performance of fierce tactical discipline and near perfection to establish a platform for progress from this Champions League last 16.
And they came so close to achieving it until that moment in the 75th minute that might yet prove decisive in this tie.
Conte’s decision to play with Eden Hazard as a “false nine” and have plenty of bodies in and around Barcelona’s brilliant creators worked superbly as Willian gave them the lead they fully deserved just after the hour.
Only ill luck and both posts had prevented the hosts from building an advantage earlier. And Chelsea’s organisation and willingness to contest every situation frustrated Barcelona, even the world-class pairing of Messi and Luis Suarez.
And in Willian, Chelsea had the game’s outstanding performer as he rattled both posts and ran Barcelona ragged with his pace and strong running.
Stamford Bridge was just beginning to contemplate taking a precious lead to the Nou Camp when Christensen, outstanding for Chelsea this season, misplaced a pass across his own area with catastrophic consequences.
Iniesta picked the perfect pass for Messi to complete the formalities with a sweeping left-foot finish.
Chelsea’s concentration may have been disturbed by penalty appeals a second earlier when Suarez tangled with Antonio Rudiger – but it was the sort of error that rarely goes unpunished by opposition of this quality.
Chelsea and the work of their manager – who said he had suffered sleepless nights working out a plan to combat Barcelona – deserves so much credit on a night when they put their recent struggles behind them and looked much more like last season’s Premier League champions.
Messi breaks Chelsea drought
Chelsea had managed to establish an unlikely stranglehold on the genius of Messi… until he provided the emphatic finish that gave his side the crucial away goal on Tuesday night.
The 30-year-old Argentina forward had not scored against Chelsea in eight previous Champions League appearances – and for large portions of a high-quality game it looked like he would be frustrated once more.
Chelsea’s prodigious work-rate ensured he either ran into a mass of bodies or out of room on countless occasions, although one darting run at lightning pace in the first half brought audible gasps from the Stamford Bridge gallery.
Messi, along with Suarez, were kept at arm’s length for much of this game, but it only takes one slip against this Barcelona team, even when they are out of sorts.
Iniesta was the creator on the left edge of the area and Messi did not even break stride before firing low past Courtois, causing even understated Barca coach Ernesto Valverde to show a flash of emotion.
Can Chelsea still qualify?
Chelsea’s players were a picture of obvious and understandable disappointment as they trooped off at the final whistle – but it was with the applause of the home support ringing in their ears.
This was in recognition of an outstanding team performance that did not get the reward it deserved and must serve as encouragement for the second leg in Barcelona.
Chelsea, underpinned by Conte’s tactical nous, proved they could both threaten and subdue Barcelona and they must do it again in the return leg.
Barcelona, however, must be favourites because the momentum is now with them and the balance and emphasis of the tie shifted in the time it took Messi to score that crucial goal.
Chelsea, however, demonstrated here that they have no reason to fear Barcelona and past history has also shown they can defy the odds, as they did to beat this same opposition in the 2012 Champions League semi-final on the way to lifting the trophy in Munich.