The latest chapter in one of the prime Champions League soccer rivalries of the current century will be written when Chelsea host Barcelona at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday (2.45pm ET).
The two teams have met on 12 occasions since the turn of the century, in five knockout ties and once during the group stage. In knockout ties, Barcelona have won three to Chelsea’s two, with the teams sharing a triumph apiece in their two semi-final encounters.
It would, however, probably be fair to say that the anticipation around this particular, last-16, clash is slightly lower. That is mostly a function of how differently the teams have performed this season. While Barcelona hold a commanding lead in La Liga and progressed as group winners in the Champions League, Chelsea finished second in their group and are in danger of losing their top-four place in England’s Premier League if their form doesn’t pick up soon.
Chelsea moved up to second in the table with a 5-0 thrashing of Stoke City in their final match of 2017, but a record of two wins, two draws and two defeats (both by a margin of three goals) in a relatively kind set of subsequent fixtures has seen them drop down to fourth, just one point clear of Tottenham Hotspur in fifth.
Tensions between coach Antonio Conte and the club appear to be increasing, and were not helped by defeat to Arsenal in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup last month. The Italian continues to paint himself as a pauper without means to compete, but Chelsea spent €54 million to add Emerson Palmieri, Olivier Giroud and Ross Barkley to his squad during the January transfer window, in addition to the €206 million they spent last summer.
Whether that money has been astutely invested is another matter, but what is clear is that with a successful defence of their league title all but impossible given Manchester City’s lead at the top of the Premier League table, only cup competitions can now offer silverware this season. Conte is yet to win a knockout tournament in his coaching career to date, while Chelsea have been knocked out at the round-of-16 stage in each of their last two Champions League campaigns.
Barcelona have only twice fallen at the last 16 stage of the competition, but both times to English opponents: Chelsea in 2005 and Liverpool in 2007. Those exits were sandwiched between their success in the 2006 edition, in which they defeated Arsenal in the final, while the latter defeat prefaced an era of sustained high performance. In the 10 years since, they have lifted the Champions League three times and always reached at least the last eight.
A core of homegrown players has been at the centre of Barcelona’s success. While some such as Carlos Puyol and Xavi have since retired, current players Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi were all part of the starting XI the last time Barcelona faced Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in European competition, six years ago. Gerard Pique was also at the club.
The stylistic peak of the Pep Guardiola years has passed but success has continued to follow. After a relatively disappointing end to Luis Enrique’s time in charge, Ernesto Valverde came in last summer and immediately won the squad over with his calm and considered approach. Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain saw him settle upon a 4-4-2 formation that has provided a solid defensive base, good balance and excellent results to date.
Barcelona have lost just once in 38 matches in all competitions this season, comfortably top La Liga and are through to the final of the Copa del Rey. They have also performed well against strong opponents, recording two wins and two draws from matches against Juventus (twice), Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.
Chelsea have won four, and lost just one, of the previous six matches between the sides at Stamford Bridge. They were able to rotate more heavily in 4-0 thrashing of Hull City in the FA Cup on Friday and were impressive in defeating Atletico Madrid away from home earlier this season. However the sensation that is Barcelona should be considered the marginal favorites to secure victory on Tuesday.
Our Preview’s Chelsea vs. Barcelona Betting Picks & Predictions Verdict
Having checked the odds available at the best online sports betting sites, this preview’s Chelsea vs. Barcelona prediction is: