Blues can surprise Barca: Zola

Crystal Palace's James Tomkins clashing with Chelsea's Alvaro Morata in their Premier League match last Saturday. Starting at No. 9 could just be the spark for the Spaniard after a lean spell since Christmas.
Crystal Palace's James Tomkins clashing with Chelsea's Alvaro Morata in their Premier League match last Saturday. Starting at No. 9 could just be the spark for the Spaniard after a lean spell since Christmas.PHOTO: REUTERS

Former player says Chelsea can clinch last-16 tie by defending well and attacking on the counter

LONDON • Chelsea great Gianfranco Zola can speak from experience what kind of an uphill task awaits the current side under Antonio Conte when they take on Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the second leg of their last 16 tie today.

The former Italy striker scored in a 3-1 quarter-final, first-leg win for Chelsea over Barcelona at Stamford Bridge in 2000 before the Catalan giants matched that scoreline in the return leg and prevailed 5-1 (6-4 aggregate win) after extra time.

With the tie balanced at 1-1, Zola is backing his former club not to suffer the same heartbreak as he did.

The 51-year-old insists they have the quality to make life difficult for Ernesto Valverde's LaLiga leaders.

"It's not going to be easy. Playing in Barcelona is a tough game. But Chelsea are a strong team, with good players," Zola told Omnisport.

"They can go there and surprise Barcelona, they have the ability to do that. Chelsea have the type of players Barcelona don't like very much, so it's still an open game.

ALL TO PLAY FOR

Chelsea have the type of players Barcelona don't like very much, so it's still an open game.

GIANFRANCO ZOLA, a member of the Chelsea team who lost to Barca in the 2000 Champions League quarter-finals.

"They will have to defend well. The first leg was 1-1, Barcelona will want to try to win the game (and not rely on the away goals rule).

"I'm sure they will want to be safe. If Chelsea defend well first, then they can use the counter as they can do really well.

"They stand a very good chance."

Both teams began this campaign at the end of a frenzied summer, in which key players were sold, less wanted ones bought and with the overall feeling of a squad weakened rather than bolstered.

But it is Valverde who heads into the second-leg clash with his LaLiga tilt still very much intact.

Barcelona sit eight points clear at the top of LaLiga, and are unbeaten after 28 games.

Chelsea are fifth, four points adrift of the Champions League qualification spots.

What Conte has complicated, Valverde has simplified. Barcelona have become more functional this season, playing 4-4-2 as well as 4-3-3, and tighter at the back.

They have conceded only one more league goal than the miserly Atletico Madrid. And the Spaniard has kept Lionel Messi happy, with the Argentinian scoring five goals in his last four games.

Conte, meanwhile, is yet to find a solution to his striking problems, has given oxygen to his conflict with the club's hierarchy and has succeeded only in alienating his best player, Eden Hazard, who is disillusioned playing as a false nine.

"We need to repeat the game we played at Stamford Bridge and to try to exploit the chances to score," Conte told Chelsea TV following Saturday's 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, hinting that he will opt for a similar approach at the Nou Camp.

"It's important to understand that we must be prepared to suffer, if we play with Hazard as No. 9, or if we play with (Olivier) Giroud or (Alvaro) Morata as No. 9 and Hazard as No. 10."

Former Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard believes that Morata must start against Barcelona, even though the Spaniard failed to build on his 12 goals in the first half of the season owing to a back problem and has not scored since Dec 26.

Lampard challenged him to emulate ex-Blues striker Fernando Torres' feat against Barcelona six years ago. Chelsea went into the second leg of the 2012 Champions League semi-final tie with a slender 1-0 lead and looked doomed when captain John Terry was sent off for violent conduct in the 37th minute and Andres Iniesta put Barcelona 2-1 ahead on aggregate afterwards.

Torres then scored on the break in stoppage time to send Chelsea through to the final on the away goals rule.

The Blues went on to beat Bayern Munich on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the final.

"Morata has been going through a difficult time, but he just needs to look at Fernando Torres for inspiration to do something special at the Nou Camp," Lampard wrote in his Evening Standard column.

Former Chelsea player-manager Ruud Gullit told Sky Sports that Conte has to get his formation spot-on with his tactical nous "on trial against Barcelona".

And with so much at stake, Valverde is leaving nothing to chance, saying: "They are very strong and defend very close together... all is still to play for."

Chelsea have never won at the Nou Camp in eight attempts, but they are unbeaten in their last four visits and have scored at least once in three of them.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BARCELONA V CHELSEA

Singtel TV Ch112 & StarHub Ch212, tomorrow, 3.30am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2018, with the headline 'Blues can surprise Barca: Zola'. Print Edition | Subscribe