Football: 'Perfect game' or go home

Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud (second from right) in training with team-mates including Emerson Palmieri (back) and Eden Hazard (right) ahead of today's Champions League last-16, first leg at Stamford Bridge. Blues manager Antonio Conte has a select
Chelsea striker Olivier Giroud (second from right) in training with team-mates including Emerson Palmieri (back) and Eden Hazard (right) ahead of today's Champions League last-16, first leg at Stamford Bridge. Blues manager Antonio Conte has a selection headache of having to choose between Giroud or Alvaro Morata to lead the line against favourites Barcelona.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Conte knows Chelsea will need to step up considerably to exploit Barca's shortcomings

LONDON • Chelsea manager Antonio Conte conceded his side must play the "perfect game" to beat a formidable Barcelona in today's first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie.

The Premier League champions have shaken off a poor run of form, winning consecutive matches over West Brom in the league and Hull in the FA Cup, but Conte knows an extra gear is needed.

"On one hand, you know this team is one of the best in the world - maybe they are favourites to win this competition," he told British media. "On the other hand, we must be excited because we have a great opportunity to play a massive game against a really strong team and to show which is our level.

"We have to try to have the perfect game, the perfect game to try to make the best decisions. For this type of team... they have fantastic characteristics with the ball.

"But they can have weaknesses without the ball and we have to try and exploit this."

The Italian is likely to ask his team to hit Barcelona on the break with pace - a reason why he is set to employ a 3-4-3 formation over 3-5-2.

  • 0 in 8

  • Barcelona star Lionel Messi has not scored against Chelsea in eight games - the most times he has played against any team without scoring.

System aside, he will have to decide whether to start with captain Gary Cahill or Antonio Rudiger at the back, and choose between Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud to lead the line.

Chelsea last defeated the Spanish side in 2012 as the London outfit marched to their first Champions League title. The LaLiga leaders have changed a lot since - Ernesto Valverde's men are not even the same team they were a season ago.

Neymar's decision to walk out on the club for a world-record €222 million (S$361.1 million) to Paris Saint-Germain was a huge loss that Valverde has used as an opportunity to reconstruct a more solid side that maintain the firepower of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez in attack.

A change from Barca's traditional 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 has seen them concede just once in their six Champions League games to date, and 11 times in 24 LaLiga outings.

Meanwhile, the space left unoccupied by Neymar has unleashed left-back Jordi Alba as an attacking threat. He was on target as Barca equalled a club record by avoiding defeat for a 31st straight LaLiga game in a 2-0 win at Eibar on Saturday.

But Cesc Fabregas, who moved to Stamford Bridge from Barcelona in 2014, is confident that Conte's side - who travel to second-placed Manchester United in the league on Sunday - can prevail.

"They try to put the first pressure very, very high - (they) always work towards the ball," said the former Barca academy graduate.

"If we can (get) past this first phase, then we have the content to do that, and not put ourselves under too much pressure, then I think we can hurt them because they will leave a lot of spaces at the back.

"Hopefully, we can give a good image of what we can do and do a good performance."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CHELSEA V BARCELONA

Singtel TV Ch112 & StarHub Ch212, tomorrow, 3.30am

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2018, with the headline ''Perfect game' or go home'. Print Edition | Subscribe