MARCH 10 — If Chelsea want to know the scale of the task they face on Wednesday night, they only have to look as far back as last weekend.
The Stamford Bridge club are preparing to travel to Barcelona for the second leg of their last 16 Champions League tie, needing a victory over a high-scoring draw to progress after the first leg finished 1-1 a couple of weeks ago.
And the difficulty of their challenge in securing a positive result at the Camp Nou was made clear when Barcelona more or less wrapped up the Spanish title with a 1-0 victory over second-placed Atletico Madrid on Sunday.
For once, I’m not talking about Lionel Messi, who yet again produced heroics to score a brilliant winning goal with his third free-kick in successive games.
Messi, of course, is a genius and Chelsea know that he can take the game away from them in an instant. But the truth is that Barcelona don’t even need Messi in this game, because a goalless draw would be enough to take them through courtesy of the away goal (netted by Messi, naturally) at Stamford Bridge.
And a goalless draw is a perfectly feasible outcome, because the biggest difference between this current Barcelona team and the versions we have seen in recent years is their defensive excellence.
Don’t get me wrong — Barca have never been bad at the back. You don’t win as many trophies as they have with a dodgy back four.
But defending has never been their strength, with their greatest asset instead being their ability going forward. Heading into a tie like this week’s with Chelsea, their mindset would be along the lines of: it doesn’t matter if Chelsea score, because we know we can score twice.
That is no longer the case, and the 1-0 victory over Atletico six days ago provided another clear illustration of just how good they are defensively.
Atletico headed into the game in great form, with star striker Antoine Griezmann having scored seven goals in his previous two games and fellow forward Diego Costa getting back to his ogre-like beast mode best.
But not only were Atletico held scoreless last weekend, they were also held chanceless. Their only effort on target throughout the course of the 90 minutes was a harmless looping header by midfielder Saul Niguez, which was easily saved by the otherwise untroubled home goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Griezmann worked hard but barely had a sniff while Costa hardly featured in the game at all, and neither did Atletico manager Diego Simeone’s attempts to bolster his attack yield any dividends, with substitutes Kevin Gameiro and Angel Correa also kept quiet.
There are two main factors behind Barca’s distinct defensive improvement. Firstly, French central defender Samuel Umtiti has finally become the stable central defensive partner for Gerard Pique that had been lacking ever since former captain Carles Puyol headed into decline and retirement more than five years ago.
After Puyol left the team, his place was mostly taken by Javier Mascherano, a converted midfielder who was a terrifically spirited performer but whose lack of pace and propensity for rash mistakes always allowed opposing forwards to think they had a chance.
Several other players came and went, with the likes of Jeremy Mathieu, Marc Bartra and Thomas Vermaelen all attempting but failing to dislodge Mascherano and form a partnership with Pique.
Finally, though, Barca struck gold when they captured young Frenchman Umtiti from Lyon in the summer of 2016, with his rapid progress reflected in the fact that Mascherano decided to leave the club in January, after being offered a late-career pay-day in China.
Umtiti is an awesome defender. Strong in the air, firm and decisive in the tackle, fast, with great anticipation skills and more than enough ball-playing ability to retain possession under pressure. He is able to brush off opposition strikers as though they were irritating children, and Costa was last seen fruitlessly trying to escape his pocket at the end of last weekend’s game.
Alongside him, Pique is as good as ever, while full-backs Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba are solid defenders and keeper ter Stegen is an outstanding shot-stopper who has now cut out his earlier habit of losing concentration.
But as much as the quality of the individual defenders, Barca are so strong at the back because manager Ernesto Valverde has given his team a solid team framework which allows them to minimise the space available for opponents.
Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic — who is playing deeper than in previous seasons — provide additional support to the back four, which is further strengthened by the diligence of wide midfielders such as Andres Iniesta, Paulinho and Andre Gomes, while Luis Suarez charges around to close down opposing defenders and stop attacks at source.
It has all added up to create a formidable defensive unit, with Barca conceding just 13 goals in their 27 league games to date, and only two in seven Champions League outings (including a pair of clean sheets against Juventus).
So Chelsea need to worry about Messi, but they also need to worry about the other end of the field. If they don’t score, they will be out — whatever Messi does. And against this Barcelona defence, it’s unlikely they’ll get many chances.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.