Out-of-form Chelsea have what it takes to beat Barcelona

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Willian (above) was Chelsea’s star man in the first leg against Barcelona. (REUTERS)
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Chelsea's Belgian midfielder Eden Hazard will be key for the English side. (AFP)
Updated 13 March 2018
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Out-of-form Chelsea have what it takes to beat Barcelona

LONDON: In the memory of Ramires chipping the ball over Victor Valdes lies the knowledge that none of this makes much sense.
The rivalry between Chelsea and Barcelona has produced a remarkable sequence of matches over the past 18 years, matches that have occasionally pushed at the parameters of what is acceptable, and frequently challenged the boundaries of what is possible.
Chelsea should have no chance. Their manager is almost certainly leaving in the summer. Recent performances have been inconsistent and occasionally limp. They have lost four of their past six Premier League fixtures and have won only five of their last 16 matches in all competitions. They are fifth in the league, four points off fourth.
Barcelona, meanwhile, are still unbeaten in la Liga, eight points clear of second. They have dropped only four points at home this season and won all three of their home Champions League group games.
Everything says this should be a comfortable Barcelona win, and another step toward the exit for Antonio Conte.
And yet the history of the fixture and the nature of the first leg offers reason for pause. Chelsea should have won at Stamford Bridge. They led 1-0 and seemed in control when a sloppy pass from Andreas Christensen, a lapse in concentration from Cesc Fabregas and a panicky lunge from Cesar Azpilicueta handed Barca an equalizer.
But it was more than that. What was clear from that first leg was that this Barcelona are not the Barcelona of 2011 or even 2015. They are slower. They do not mesmerise teams with the pace of their passing. They play a more cautious game and frailties in their defending make them vulnerable, whatever results in Spain may suggest.
Willian scored but he also hit the post twice in the first leg. Again and again he surged through unchallenged on the counter.

The space he found should alarm the Catalans. Their switch to 4-4-2 should have added protection in front of the back four, but there was little sign of that at Stamford Bridge. Rather Sergio Busquets, the little pace he had having seemingly deserted him entirely, was overwhelmed, just as he had been in the 4-0 defeat away to Paris St.Germain at this stage last season. That tie, of course, should keep any Chelsea optimism in check — Barca have frequently redeemed a disappointing away performance in Europe with an emphatic display at home — but the lesson of that first leg was that Ernesto Valverde’s side is far from impregnable.
The biggest systemic issue for Chelsea in the first leg was that by deploying Eden Hazard as a false nine they occasionally lacked an obvious outlet when they needed to relieve pressure. Although it could be argued that Hazard’s movement created space for Willian, the Belgian made clear after the defeat at Manchester City that he does not enjoy the role and, with Conte insisting he will consult players on tactics before tonight’s game, it seems likely Hazard will revert to his preferred inside-forward role with Olivier Giroud offering a more physical target at center-forward.
At the end of September, Chelsea produced probably the best performance by an English side in this season’s Champions League to win at Atletico Madrid. That feels a long time ago, but if a return to Spain ignites something similar, Conte could have a glorious farewell yet.


Unrivaled: India now 7-0 in World Cup games against Pakistan

Updated 17 June 2019
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Unrivaled: India now 7-0 in World Cup games against Pakistan

  • Conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of a predominantly pro-India crowd 

MANCHESTER, UK: For such an intense rivalry, it is still a lopsided contest when India and Pakistan meet at the Cricket World Cup.

India extended their record to 7-0 against Pakistan at the World Cup with an 89-run victory in a rain-interrupted encounter Sunday that likely will remain the most-watched game of the six-week tournament.

India started ominously with Rohit Sharma scoring 140 from 113 deliveries and skipper Virat Kohli contributing 77 in a total of 336-5, a record for a One-Day International at Old Trafford.

Pakistan were always behind the run-rate required.

Fakhar Zaman (62) and Babar Azam (48) put on 104 for the second wicket but when both were dismissed by left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav within nine balls, Pakistan’s hopes faded with them.

When Hardik Pandya took wickets with consecutive deliveries in the 27th over, Pakistan were 129-5. And with a result in play because both teams had batted more than 20 overs, there was no chance of sharing points if rain prevented any more play. A delay after the 35th with Pakistan at 166-6 just prolonged the inevitable.

Pakistan were  set a revised target of 302 from 40 overs and the last five overs were a non-event with Pakistan finishing 212-6. India remained unbeaten in four games to start the tournament.

The conditions did not dampen the enthusiasm of a predominantly pro-India crowd that filled the 162-year-old venue to its 23,500 capacity. Seats were in excessively high demand, after all, with the International Cricket Council reporting more than 800,000 ticket applications for the game.

There is always extra significance when the nuclear-armed neighboring countries meet at ICC tournaments because India and Pakistan play cricket so infrequently in bilateral series.

This was no different, with a 1 billion-plus TV audience and an almost football-like atmosphere at the ground.

Kohli’s single to get off the mark was met by “Kohli-Kohli-Kohli” chants from the predominantly pro-India crowd.

Sharma set the tone with his second century of the tournament, sharing partnerships of 136 with KL Rahul (57) for the first wicket and 98 with Kohli for the second.

He seemed ready to really unleash when he needlessly paddled a ball from Hasan Ali to Wahab Riaz at short fine leg in the 38th over.

Kohli continued, becoming the third Indian batter to pass 11,000 ODI runs. In doing so in his 222nd innings, he became the fastest to reach the milestone.

Kohli was on 71 and India was 305-4 when rain stopped play for the first time in the 47th over. The India captain was caught behind off Mohammad Amir’s bowling not long after he returned from the 55-minute rain break and, surprisingly, walked off before umpire Marais Erasmus had a chance to signal him out.

There was some speculation Kohli did not edge the ball but it was inconsequential in the end, as India passed Sri Lanka’s 318-7 against England in 2006 to set the highest ODI total in Manchester.

After a batting onslaught at the top, Pakistan pegged back the run-rate slightly as Amir (3-47) dismissed Pandya (26) and then had MS Dhoni (1) and Kohli caught behind — both the ex-captain and captain walking.

Things started going haywire for Pakistan after skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed won the toss and fielded, going against the advice sent via social media by Prime Minister and 1992 World Cup-winning captain Imran Khan.

Overcast and cool overhead conditions that usually would favor swing and seam bowling didn’t greatly assist the Pakistan attack, with India racing to 52-0 in its most productive opening power play of the tournament.

The Pakistan pacemen had trouble with the umpires, with Amir and Wahab each cautioned twice for running on the protected area in the middle of the pitch. One further warning would have resulted in a suspension.

It also didn’t help that opener Imam-ul-Haq got out in rare circumstances to Vijay Shankar’s very first delivery at a World Cup — it coming on the fifth ball of Pakistan’s fifth over after Shankar was asked to finish it off for injured teammate Bhuveshwar Kumar.

Pakistan’s next game is at Lord’s against South Africa, which also has three points and only remote prospects of reaching the semifinals.