Willian confident of Champions League progress despite Lionel Messi magic

Chelsea’s Spanish defender Cesar Azpilicueta (L) vies with Barcelona’s Argentinian striker Lionel Messi (R) during the first leg of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 football match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge stadium in London on Feb. 20, 2018. (AFP/IKIMAGES/Ian Kington)
Updated 21 February 2018

Willian confident of Champions League progress despite Lionel Messi magic

LONDON: Chelsea’s Willian is confident Antonio Conte’s side can pull off a shock win in Barcelona after he came close to upstaging Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in their Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge.
Nine years on from a hugely controversial semifinal between the clubs, Andres Iniesta and Messi combined once more to ensure the Catalans ended the first leg of the last-16 tie the happier of the two sides with a 1-1 draw.
This time roles were reversed for Barca’s two all-time greats, with Iniesta providing the pass for Messi to score his first goal in nine attempts against Chelsea after pouncing on a mistake from 21-year-old center-back Andreas Christensen.
It is not as fatal a blow as when Iniesta fired a late goal into the top corner from Messi’s calm cut-back in 2009 in a match that famously saw the hosts have four penalty appeals waved away by Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.
But Conte says his side will need to do “something incredible” in Catalonia in three weeks’ time to progress.
The Italian was left to rue a case of what might have been. His tactical plan to sit deep, cede possession and hit Barca with the pace of goalscorer Willian, Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez worked a treat for 75 minutes.
Despite flashes of brilliance, in particular when one slaloming first-half run left Antonio Rudiger tackling thin air, there was always one Chelsea body too many between Messi and the goal for the Argentine to get through.
Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic compared Chelsea’s tactics to a handball team, huddled around the edge of their area.
But Messi had the final word as Barcelona capitalized on a rare Chelsea defensive error, scoring his first goal against the west Londoners to equalize Willian’s second-half goal with 15 minutes to go.
Hazard had spoken on the eve of the game about having to do more in Europe’s premier club competition to justify comparisons with the five-time World Player of the Year and his eternal Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
Instead, it was Willian who shone brightest. The Brazilian sent Barca two huge warnings before the break of his threat from range as he beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen to his right and then his left, only to see both efforts come back off the post.
He finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute, arrowing a low shot past the Barcelona goalkeeper following a short corner.
Willian saw enough in Chelsea’s performance at Stamford Bridge to suggest they can upset the odds in the second leg.
“In a difficult game we played very well,” he told the club’s website. “We had to stay compact, we had a plan and we did exactly as we expected.
“They had the ball and we expected to counter-attack, and we could win this game. But we did not and the result is still open, we have to go there and try to win.
“Barcelona had more possession but they did not create more dangerous chances to score. We can go there and make the game.
“To play in the Nou Camp is totally different and we have go there with the same mentality and try to win the game.”
Conte gave a glowing assessment of the 29-year-old Brazilian’s performance.
“Willian has the potential to play this type of game in any game. I hope that to see this type of performance for a long time,” said Conte of a player who has not always been first-choice this season.
“When you play this way, the coach doesn’t have a doubt and you play.”

Atletico catching all the breaks in Champions League

Updated 12 August 2020

Atletico catching all the breaks in Champions League

  • A victory against Leipzig will put Atletico back in the semifinals for the first time since 2017

LISBON: So far so good for Atletico Madrid in the quest for their first Champions League title.

Diego Simeone’s team have caught all the breaks going into the decisive final-eight tournament in Lisbon.

Old foes Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo are gone. They drew Leipzig instead of a more traditional powerhouse for the quarterfinals. And their rival lost its top player after Timo Werner left for Chelsea. Even when things went wrong and the squad was hit by COVID-19, Atletico avoided the worst as only two players were infected and they could still make the trip to Portugal.

Things have been looking good for Simeone and his players.

A victory against Leipzig on Thursday will put Atletico back in the semifinals for the first time since it was eliminated by Ronaldo’s Madrid in the last four in 2017. Ronaldo and Madrid had defeated Atletico in the final in 2014 and 2016, and also ended the rival’s run in the quarterfinals in 2015.

Ronaldo again was Atletico’s nemesis last season after joining Juventus. Atletico lost to the Italian team in the round of 16 after Ronaldo scored a hat trick in the decisive second leg in Turin.

But this time Ronaldo and Juventus were eliminated by Lyon in the last 16, the same stage in which Madrid were knocked out of the tournament by Manchester City. Only two past champions are still left in the competition — Barcelona and Bayern Munich — and they play against each other in the opposite side of the draw, meaning Atletico could only meet one of them in the final.

Leipzig are a relative newcomer to the Champions League, having reached the group stage only twice. This is the first time they made it to the knockout round. They eliminated Tottenham in the round of 16, but now they won't count on top scorer Werner, who did not extend his contract by a few weeks to finish the season with the German club before moving to Chelsea.

Atletico stunned defending European champion Liverpool in the last 16, advancing after a 3-2 win in England.

“The game against Liverpool will go down in history and was one of the best we’ve had in a long time,” Atletico striker Diego Costa said. “It gave fans high expectations and we will give our best to try to meet those expectations. Hopefully we will play well and luck will stay on our side.”

Costa said Atletico will not take Leipzig lightly despite  the rival’s lack of experience in international competitions.

“They are very strong on the ball and know what they are about,” he said. “They have made it to the quarterfinals and have no pressure.”

There was a scare within Atletico this week when it announced two positive test results for COVID-19 among the group that was traveling to Lisbon. There were concerns that an outbreak within the club could have affected the team’s participation in the tournament in Portugal, but new tests showed that only Ángel Correa and Sime Vrsaljko were infected and the squad could travel to Lisbon.

Vrsaljko was not even going to play because he is nursing an injury, while Correa isn't among Atletico’s top stars even though he led the team in assists this season.

After coming agonizingly close recently, Atletico hope the breaks will keep going their way and that they  will finally get to lift the coveted European trophy.