Chelsea’s Willian is confident Antonio Conte’s side can pull a surprise victory in Barcelona after he came close to upstaging Argentine superstar Lionel Messi in their Champions League clash at Stamford Bridge.
Nine years on from a hugely controversial semi-final between the clubs, Andres Iniesta and Messi again did the collaboration for the Catalans which ended the first leg of the last-16 tie on a draw giving Barcelona a upper hand in qualification.
These time roles were reversed for Barca’s two all-time greats, with Iniesta providing the pass for Messi to score his first goal in nine attempts against Chelsea after capitalising on a mistake from 21-year-old centre-back Andreas Christensen.
It is not as fatal a blow as when Iniesta fired a late goal into the top corner from Messi’s calm cut-back in 2009 in a match that famously saw the hosts have four penalty appeals waved away by Norwegian referee Tom Henning Ovrebo.
But Conte says his side will need to do “something incredible” in Catalonia in three weeks’ time to progress.
The Italian was left to rue a case of what might have been. His tactical plan to sit deep, cede possession and hit Barca with the pace of goalscorer Willian, Eden Hazard and Pedro Rodriguez worked a treat for 75 minutes.
Despite flashes of brilliance, in particular when one slaloming first-half run left Antonio Rudiger tackling thin air, there was always one Chelsea body too many between Messi and the goal for the Argentine to get through.
Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic compared Chelsea’s tactics to a handball team, huddled around the edge of their area.
– Willian outshines Hazard –
But Messi had the final word as Barcelona capitalised on a rare Chelsea defensive error, scoring his first goal against the west Londoners to equalise Willian’s second-half goal with 15 minutes to go.
Hazard had spoken on the eve of the game about having to do more in Europe’s premier club competition to justify comparisons with the five-time World Player of the Year and his eternal Real Madrid rival Cristiano Ronaldo.
Instead, it was Willian who shone brightest. The Brazilian sent Barca two huge warnings before the break of his threat from range as he beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen to his right and then his left, only to see both efforts come back off the post.
He finally broke the deadlock in the 62nd minute, arrowing a low shot past the Barcelona goalkeeper following a short corner.
Willian saw enough in Chelsea’s performance at Stamford Bridge to suggest they can upset the odds in the second leg.
“In a difficult game we played very well,” he told the club’s website. “We had to stay compact, we had a plan and we did exactly as we expected.
“They had the ball and we expected to counter-attack, and we could win this game. But we did not and the result is still open, we have to go there and try to win.
“Barcelona had more possession but they did not create more dangerous chances to score. We can go there and make the game.
“To play in the Nou Camp is totally different and we have to go there with the same mentality and try to win the game.”
Conte gave a glowing assessment of the 29-year-old Brazilian’s performance.
“Willian has the potential to play this type of game in any game. I hope that to see this type of performance for a long time,” said Conte of a player who has not always been first-choice this season.
“When you play this way, the coach doesn’t have a doubt and you play.”