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Chelsea should fear new-look Barcelona


Chelsea’s Danish defender Andreas Christensen (2L) sits with an injury during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Bournemouth at Stamford Bridge in London on January 31, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL

It’s nearly 16 months since Barcelona last faced English opposition, and a lot has changed at the Spanish giants since their emphatic 3-1 defeat at Manchester City in November, 2016.

That defeat offered an accurate representation of Barca’s strengths and weaknesses at the time – they produced some sparkling attacking football to take the lead but were ultimately undone by a lack of defensive structure that allowed City to run riot in the second half.

Those deficiencies meant then manager Luis Enrique endured a disappointing final season in charge, with his side surrendering the Spanish title to Real Madrid and exiting the Champions League in the quarterfinals.But that all feels a long time ago, with the new and improved Barca vintage, under Ernesto Valverde, determinedly hunting down another league, cup and European treble.

They may not be producing the same kind of flowing football as in the Pep Guardiola era, but – as they prepare for today’s Champions League visit to Chelsea – they are looking good. Very good.

Chelsea fans could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about when it comes to Lionel Messi because the Argentine has failed to score in any of his eight previous games against the London club – the most he’s played against any team without scoring.

In fact, the last meeting between the teams resulted in one of Messi’s greatest personal disappointments as he missed a crucial penalty in the second leg of the 2012 semi-final at the Nou Camp, with the Blues going on to win the competition in Munich.

Messi also has a poor record against Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who went six games without conceding against the Barca talisman during his final season with Atletico Madrid in 2013-14 – a campaign that ended with Atletico beating Barca to the title on the last day of the season and knocking them out of the Champions League.

But surely records like that are only meant to be broken by players with the quality of Messi, who is heading into this week’s game in fabulous form having already scored 27 goals in all competitions this season.Not only is Messi the top scorer in La Liga – his 20 goals helping his team establish a seven-point lead – but he’s also first in the assists charts with 11 goals created – mostly for Luis Suarez.The only opponent capable of stopping Messi, it sometimes seems, is the woodwork – he has hit the post or crossbar 15 times.

So perhaps Courtois can call upon the help of an extra ‘defender’.The departure of Neymar to Paris St-Germain necessitated a tactical change, and Valverde has settled on a 4-4-2 formation.It allows Messi – for the first time in his career, really – to play as a traditional number 10 behind centre-forward Luis Suarez. It is a role known as the ‘enganche’ in Argentine football.

The main beneficiary of Neymar’s departure and the subsequent change in formation is left-back Jordi Alba, who had a drastic dip in form last season to the extent he was often omitted from the starting line-up. Barring injuries, 10 members of Valverde’s starting XI at Stamford Bridge are set in stone: Ter Stegen will be in goal behind Alba, Pique, Umtiti and Roberto; the midfield will contain Busquets, Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic, and Messi will partner Suarez up front.The identity of the other player in midfield, however, is not certain.

Former Tottenham man Paulinho is favourite, especially for the away leg, with his physical power and defensive attributes edging him ahead of more attacking options such as Paco Alcacer, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez and outsider Aleix Vidal.France winger Dembele has had a hugely frustrating season since his £135.5m summer move from Borussia Dortmund, only completing 290 minutes of action because of injuries.

On his rare outings, Dembele has looked out of place, clearly not yet in sync with his team-mates’ methods and looking equally likely to beat two defenders with an electrifying burst or give the ball away with a badly misplaced pass.

In a largely predictable set-up, however, Dembele has a big role in the next few months, using his pace and dribbling ability to create something out of nothing and destabilise opposing defences.

Not even Dembele’s team-mates know what he’ll do next, never mind the opposition, and although he will almost certainly be restricted to the bench at Stamford Bridge, he remains a tantalising option to provide a dynamic attacking spark – if it is needed.

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