Tuesday. It must Barcelona then. Some eight hundred miles and several stratospheres in football terms separate the cities of Sheffield and tonight’s destination: while the gung-ho graft of Jagielka and Montgomery presented one kind of test, the guile of Deco and Messi will pose another entirely. Hilario may have made light work of Danny Webber’s tepid spot kick, but his record is far more likely to be tarnished when – sorry, if – he faces Ronaldinho from twelve yards. And if we’re being brutally honest, Frank Rijkaard is certainly no Neil Warnock.
Saturday’s third gear 2-0 win over Sheffield United was typically business-like and clearly played with one eye on this evening. Ashley Cole was given a day off to contemplate a meeting with Messi and Khalid Boulahrouz, arguably the best player in the corresponding game at Stamford Bridge two weeks ago for his faultless marshalling of Ronaldinho, watched the game from the bench. The Dutchman, already looking like one of the most astute signings of the summer, could attain near-legendary status in SW6 if he contains the Brazilian in a similar fashion this evening. Barcelona are certainly missing their biggest goal threat, Samuel Eto’o and whilst his talent is unquestionable, Blues old boy Eidur Gudjohnsen is yet to prove he can alter the course of a game as effectively as Henrik Larsson, the player he replaced in the summer.
As the old adage suggests that buses come along in threes, this season has seen the worrying trend of Chelsea losing players in twos. Following the Cech / Cudicini injuries at Reading, Saturday’s absence of Andriy Shevchenko (muscle strain) and the departure of Didier Drogba after forty-five minutes against the Blades is a serious cause for concern. Both players have travelled to Spain, but Mourinho has suggested that he may continue with Salomon Kalou up front after his impressive second half performance at the weekend. Cudicini is fit and available for selection, although Hilario looks likely to continue in goal following his ‘three point save’ at Bramall Lane.
The recent and largely acrimonious history is well documented and provides a powerful backdrop to tonight’s game. Frisk, Del Horno / Messi and the ongoing war of words between Rijkaard and Mourinho has made Chelsea v. Barcelona one of the most keenly anticipated and hotly contested fixtures in European football. Chelsea travel to the Nou Camp seeking a result that could mean qualification for the knockout stages; a win for the Blues would also leave Barca flirting uncomfortably with the UEFA Cup – even more so should Werder Bremen triumph against Levski Sofia in Group A’s other fixture.
As is almost customary, the inevitable pre-match phoney war has commenced in earnest with the managers’ press conferences. Mourinho’s thinly-veiled suggestion that Barcelona benefit from ‘favourable’ decisions at their Catalan fortress was typically bullish and inflammatory: “I know the number of penalties they get at home. I know how often they play against 10 men…” Following Gudjohnsen’s theatrical triple-pike with vinaigrette tumble to earn a penalty against Recreativo Huelva at the weekend, he certainly has a few allies at El Decano, the oldest football club in Spain whose president Francisco Mendoza has echoed Mourinho’s concerns. Rijkaard’s retort that such a suggestion comes from a ‘poor man’s mind’ was relatively tame in comparison, but it does little to disguise the Dutchman’s anger at his opposite number; the exchange of Christmas cards between the two remains an unlikely prospect.
With the off-pitch hostilities in full swing to suggest that tonight’s referee, the Italian Stefano Farina, has a lot on his plate is something of an understatement. Three of his four Champions League outings last season involved English clubs, including Chelsea’s 2-0 away win over Anderlecht in November 2005. He took charge of the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco earlier this season, which saw Rijkaard’s European champions humbled 3-0 by UEFA Cup winners FC Sevilla. Farina has overseen both the Milan and Rome derbies during his time in Italy, so hopefully he won’t be overawed by the occasion.
In the words of Alan Partridge, let battle commence. Come on you blue boys!
Barcelona – Samuel Eto’o is the only long-term absentee and Lionel Messi is fit again after missing the 3-0 win over Recreativo Huelva at the weekend with an ankle injury. From: Valdés, Jorquera, Belletti, Zambrotta, Edmàlson, Márquez, Puyol, Thuram, van Bronckhorst, Deco, Iniesta, Motta, Xavi, Giuly, Messi, Ronaldinho, Gudjohnsen, Saviola.
Chelsea (probable) – Petr Cech is our only long-term injury. From: Hilario, Cudicini, A. Cole, Bridge, Terry, Carvalho, Boulahrouz, Ferreira, Mikel, J. Cole, Essien, Makelele, Ballack, Lampard, Robben, Shevchenko, Drogba, Kalou.
Not on your life, but should the game be played eleven versus eleven for ninety minutes, then hopefully the hacks won’t be rolling out their ‘(Hilario’s?) Halloween Shocker!’ headlines tomorrow morning. Should Chelsea perform as they did in the second half against Rijkaard’s men at Stamford Bridge, then anything is possible.
As is often the case with this fixture, probably the referee. But if we’re talking about a man in Blue rather than the one in black, then a typical ninety minute bulldog performance from Michael Essien is essential if we are to secure our first-ever win at the Nou Camp. Otherwise, whether Arjen Robben will start is open to question but his recent form suggests that he is definitely worthy of a run-out at some point.
The Man to Keep Quiet
Mourinho? Not likely, and if he’s winding up Rijkaard et al then long may he continue. As for Barcelona, the talent at their disposal is truly awesome and nigh-on impossible to contain if they are at their best, but keep Deco’s industrious midfield buzzing to a minimum and the Blues have more than a fighting chance of coming away with three points and a place in the last sixteen.
Alcohol consumption permitting, you can read all about it here tomorrow.
- Pre-match briefing (official club website): Barcelona v. Chelsea
- The train in Spain includes strike pair
- Kevin McCarra: Only victory will justify the ‘devil’ and his detail
- Rijkaard anger as Mourinho accuses Gudjohnsen of learning new tricks
- It’s official: home is where the heart is for referees
- Rijkaard riled as pantomime villain gets up to tricks again
- BBC Sport: Barcelona v. Chelsea preview
- Barca all at sea