When it finally came, perhaps Chelsea thought that the first goal Lionel Messi would score against them after all those games would be something truly remarkable, one of those moments that defied explanation and could simply be filed away as an act of genius that no mortal could stop.
Instead, the first goal Messi scored against Chelsea in nine games and 730 minutes – the 98th of his Champions League career – came from a rank poor pass from Andreas Christensen, the kind of hostage to fortune that might well have been converted by West Bromwich Albion. That it came amid one of the most intense, well-drilled Chelsea performances in Europe of recent years was Antonio Conte’s misfortune – of all the club’s meetings with Barcelona in recent history and it had to be his.
At the point Messi scored, 75 minutes into a classic Champions League tie, Barcelona had enjoyed around 75 per cent of the possession and zero per cent of the goals – the tie itself was tipped marginally in favour of the home team by virtue of a second-half Willian strike. Conte’s team had played Barcelona off the back foot, but they had played them brilliantly and Messi himself had not been afforded enough of the space he usually seeks out.
When the equaliser came, it felt like a gift. There are so many ways in which Messi and Barcelona can break the hearts of their opponents and perhaps they would have done so anyway at the Nou Camp on March 14, regardless of what might have been achieved by Chelsea in this home leg.
But this magnificent team, unbeaten in their domestic league this season, do not need any assistance to score a goal and, unfortunately, that was what Chelsea’s young Danish defender gave them.
Messi celebrated with the vehemence of a man who seemed to know that was one small kink ironed out of the great history he has written, and you could sense the deflation among the home support. “If you make mistakes against opponents like Messi and Andres Iniesta, you pay,” Conte said later.
The Chelsea manager rightly refused to blame Christensen, arguing that it was a fine balance at all times between youth and experience, to try to find the right players to carry out his game plan.
He was so close to getting it right, including the decision to drop Gary Cahill in favour of Christensen, and there was still a spark of hope in Conte afterwards that his team can reach the quarter-finals, however difficult it might be. Certainly the form of Willian suggests he is reaching top gear with a brilliant, brave performance in which he carried the fight to Barca at all times.
This was not a night for attacking players to stand around with their hands on their hips complaining about lack of service and so Willian worked hard for every chance, struck a post twice in the first half and buried his chance with the one decent sight of goal that he was afforded. He had looked impressive against Hull City in the FA Cup on Friday, but it is one thing doing it against the Championship strugglers and another stepping it up against Barcelona. For a start, Hull had 18 per cent more possession than Chelsea managed against Barcelona in this first leg.
That was always going to be a problem and there were periods of the first half when Chelsea had to adjust to life without the ball. Barcelona finished with around 73 per cent of possession over the 90 minutes – depending on whose statistics you read – and yet by the end Conte’s players had adapted well to a new way of playing that involved Willian and Eden Hazard breaking on their opposition.
They tried to get out quickly and switch the play when possible, with Antonio Rudiger on the left side of the defence often looking to hit a long diagonal in the direction of Victor Moses on the right wing.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic pulled the strings for Barcelona from deep midfield, but they did so at a safe distance as far as Chelsea were concerned. Rakitic rode his luck in the first half after an early booking for a foul on Willian and two challenges after that which could have got him in trouble.
As for Messi, we were treated to a few moments in the first half when he spun and ran at Chelsea, and one glorious feint which had Rudiger standing on the wrong foot as the great man glided past him.
Messi is at the stage of his career when the reverence for him in the opposition is unmistakable, and there are few on the pitch who can recall a time when he was not the king – even if on this occasion his goal was among the easier ones he has scored.
The Barcelona possession count edged up past 80 per cent during the first half, with Conte urging his side forward, encouraging them to put pressure on the away team’s back four. Hazard dragged Barcelona’s defence left after 33 minutes and then Willian took the ball in space in the middle and hit a right-footed shot against Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s left post. He clipped the other post eight minutes later.
The rehabilitated Tottenham Hotspur old boy Paulinho had a quiet night, eventually substituted having headed wide a cross from Messi after 15 minutes. N’Golo Kante covered the breadth of the pitch and he was a formidable barrier against Barcelona, who were arguably at their least dangerous when they were attacking corners.
It was from a Barcelona corner, claimed by Thibaut Courtois, that the Willian goal began.
The Chelsea goalkeeper dropped the ball quickly at the feet of Cesc Fabregas, from where it went left to Hazard, right to Willian and, eventually, Chelsea’s corner was won on the left side.
Hazard spotted Willian outside the Barcelona area in a promising amount of space, and the Brazilian stepped past Busquets to shape a right-footed shot inside Ter Stegen’s left post.
Before the Barcelona equaliser Chelsea might have had a second when Willian broke down the right and elected not to pass to his unlikely breakaway partner, Kante.
From Christensen’s ill-advised pass across the face of his goal that Cesar Azpilicueta was just inches from reaching, Iniesta created the goal for Messi. In that moment the tie changed, and it had taken only one slip of concentration.