Chelsea produced the kind of attacking performance in Europe that Manchester United fans were screaming for 24 hours earlier, but found centurion Lionel Messi was still too good for them, as they lost 3-0 in the Nou Camp in what was the harshest of Champions League lessons.
The result makes it seem as though Antonio Conte’s men, who had drawn the first leg 1-1, limped out of Europe in the same way that United had done against Sevilla; but in fact they played some wonderful football and created numerous chances against a below-par Barca, but failed to convert them.
The lesson was delivered instead by Messi, who scored twice from only two chances to take his tally in the Champions League to 100 and his tally for this season alone to 34.
Both goals were drilled under the body of Chelsea’s highly-rated goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who had a night to forget — the first effort which nutmegged him was particularly embarrassing — but Messi’s ruthlessness was in stark contrast to Conte’s men in white, who looked dangerous but couldn’t convert their opportunities.
Ousmane Dembele added another for Barca and though Marcos Alonso and Antonio Rudiger hit the woodwork for Chelsea, who also had a strong penalty claim turned down, it was finishing that was the difference between the sides at the end of a difficult week for Premier League clubs in which Spurs and United have also gone out.
It was a frustrating night especially for Chelsea fans, who had hoped of a repeat of the same tie in 2012 when their team famously drew 2-2, despite a red card for John Terry, to reach the Champions League Final.
The irony is that this Chelsea team, with Eden Hazard, Willian, N’Golo Kante, Willian and Alonso, may well be stronger — man for man — than that Blues team which went on to lift the trophy, but sadly they won’t have the opportunity to prove it.
The big question as Chelsea left Barcelona to return to England is what will this mean to Conte, who has been under such intense scrutiny and pressure at Stamford Bridge?
Well, the answer to that is hard to tell. Many onlookers have suggested he is already living on borrowed time and won’t be around in west London next season — and this result leaves Chelsea with only the FA Cup to play for as they head for Leicester City in the quarter-finals this weekend.
That match is followed by a huge derby against Tottenham Hotspur, a fixture which could have a big bearing on Chelsea’s hopes of earning a place in the top four and another crack at the Champions League next year. Lose that and you have to say Conte’s future is uncertain; but there were still signs here that Chelsea have the makings of a good team who are still playing for their manager.
The problem was that they started so badly in the Nou Camp, gifting a goal to Messi after only two minutes and eight seconds, his fastest ever in the Champions League. When you consider Ernesto Valverde’s side haven’t lost a game in La Liga all season then it was a goal Chelsea simply couldn’t afford to concede.
The move began with Messi trying a one-two with Dembele before Alonso failed to clear his lines and the ball fell straight back into the Argentine’s path. He took advantage, threading a weakly-hit right-footed shot through Courtois’ legs, although the Chelsea goalkeeper looked distraught that he hadn’t done more to stop it.
Chelsea’s response was good, with Willian in particular to the fore. He went close with one effort before forcing goalkeeper Ter Stegen into a good save, but Barca’s second, after 20 minutes, seemed to end the tie as a contest.
This time, Messi stole the ball of Cesc Fabregas, raced towards the penalty area and selflessly set up Dembele to score with a fine effort into the top corner of the net.
However, Chelsea had opportunities to respond and played well. Alonso saw an effort saved, Olivier Giroud saw one blocked and then Alonso came even closer with a free-kick on the stroke of half time which beat the wall and the keeper but cannoned back off a post.
Rather than be disheartened, Chelsea stepped up a gear in the second half and at times out-passed and out-played the home side, including a strong penalty shout when Alonso was brought down by Gerard Pique.
It was only a stunning goal from Messi which ended any dreams of a comeback, taking a pass from Luis Suarez and showing a remarkable turn of straight-line pace to whip past the Chelsea defence and fire left-footed under Courtois.
A distraught Alonso said: “They have Messi and maybe they were the better team even though we showed we competed well in both games. If we concede easy goals and miss chances it’s very difficult against a team like this.
“We knew they have top players and we cannot give them one metre because then they create and score. But we were also a bit unlucky. We hit the post and had so many chances in both games. We have to improve and get better.”
Chelsea ended the game with another chance, a header from Rudiger which hit the bar.
That makes it four efforts against the woodwork in this two-legged tie overall, which must be hard to take.
However, for all the encouraging aspects of their performance, the end result is they are out – and Conte, who left the field deep in conversation with Messi, knows there is a big month ahead if he wants to remain in west
Subs for Barcelona:
Vidal for Dembele 67 Gomes for Busquets 61, Paulinho for Iniesta 55
Cillessen, Alcacer, Digne,Vermaelen.
Subs for Chelsea ,Zappacosta for Moses 65 Pedro for Hazard 83, Morata for Giroud 65.
Caballero, Bakayoko, Cahill, Emerson.
Damir Skomina (Slovenia).
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