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.


Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City ease past Huddersfield to cut Liverpool’s Premier League lead

Updated 20 January 2019
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Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City ease past Huddersfield to cut Liverpool’s Premier League lead

HUDDERSFIELD: Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola was far from satisfied despite a 3-0 win away to Huddersfield Town on Sunday that saw his side cut Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League table to four points.
Liverpool’s compelling 4-3 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday heaped huge pressure back onto reigning champions City but they were rarely troubled by a Town side that look a certain bet for relegation this season.
City’s first goal, a deflected strike for Danilo in the 18th minute, brought up their 100th goal of the season in all competitions before Raheem Sterling scored a diving header from Leroy Sane’s cross in the 54th minute and Sane himself made it 3-0 with a calm finish just two minutes later.
For Guardiola, it should have been an afternoon of enjoyment as his side again proved their willingness to push Liverpool all the way this season.
The City manager, however, has forged a footballing reputation based on sublime performances as well as ruthless goalscoring and, on that basis, his team’s showing in West Yorkshire was not a success as the visitors never really clicked into gear on a day against a Huddersfield side who had parted company with manager David Wagner on Monday.
“During the season you have these kind of games,” Guardiola said. “It is important to win. We have scored many goals in all competitions.
“(But) the way we played, we didn’t deserve more than three goals. We will improve in the future.
“We have to demand more from ourselves in every game and do our best, but sometimes it’s difficult.
“Today we are happy we have won but after immediately we have to analyze. During the season you have games when maybe you are not in the top level and it is important to win these games.”
Although City’s fans were happier than their manager following this result, Guardiola could at least take some heart from the fact his side again refused to blink first in the race for the title.
For the second consecutive week, City kicked off knowing Liverpool had already won their weekend fixture and that, consequently, the onus was back on his players to secure three points as well.
Once again, Guardiola’s side managed to do that following up the 3-0 victory over Wolves with this showing and the City manager was more than happy to remind everybody that silverware is not handed out for another four months.
“One team has been better but we’re in January and there’s many more games to play,” he added.
“You don’t win or lose the Premier League in January. We have to focus on what we have to do. If Liverpool win, we have to win. And if Liverpool lose then we also have to win.”
This match was a baptism of fire for Huddersfield’s caretaker boss Mark Hudson and while the Terriers showed impressive fight to inspire some hope this season, this defeat still left them 10 points adrift of safety.
If, as expected, the Borussia Dortmund Under-23 coach Jan Siewert is appointed as Wagner’s permanent replacement, nobody would blame him if he spent his first day in the job preparing for a return to the second-tier Championship next season.
“It’s been a long week,” admitted Hudson.