HOWEVER daunting Chelsea’s plunge into the Nou Camp cauldron tomorrow night, Guus Hiddink can take consolation in reflecting that it is hardly a leap into the unknown.
The majority of his squad have tasted the frenzy of European nights in Catalonia before, with varying degrees of success, while the Dutchman himself has been a regular visitor, thanks to his spells in charge of Valencia, Real Betis and, most memorably, Real Madrid, when his team were humbled in El Clasico.
Chelsea’s collective experience should bulwark their confidence as they seek to contain what is, by common consent, European football’s most sublime collection of attacking talents, and Hiddink is exuding the air of a man quietly confident of delivering a major shock.
“I have played this Barcelona game twice in my head already,” he said. “Then again, in my head I have never lost a game.”
Hiddink’s fantasy line-up would doubtless not include Jose Bosingwa at left-back but Ashley Cole’s suspension has left Chelsea’s interim manager with alarmingly limited options for his biggest test since his appointment in February.
Bosingwa, who was substituted against West Ham on Saturday mid-way through the second half after complaining of a stiff thigh, is far from a natural in the role, although he coped comfortably enough with the limited threat posed by Luis Boa Morte at Upton Park. Lionel Messi, the jewel in Barca’s glittering crown, will surely provide a significantly sterner examination.
“You have to focus a lot on the difficulty and the complexity of the job he has to do, but let him to do the job,” Hiddink said. “But in my opinion he is playing one of the most attractive players in the world.
“But I have said before, we must not just focus defensively on Messi. Even if we think you have to make double cover then you neglect the power of the other players and they can harm you. On top of that, we have to give them something to puzzle about.”
Chelsea are currently playing with sufficient self-belief to ensure that not all the vibrant attacking football will be played by those in red and blue. Didier Drogba should be razor-sharp, having been granted the afternoon off on Saturday, while Michael Essien and Michael Ballack were limited to mere cameo appearances in east London.
All three will hope to exploit the gaps that routinely open up in Barcelona’s defence, although Hiddink is not expecting a re-run of the breathless quarter-final with Liverpool.
“They like to attack but we like to attack as well,” Hiddink added. “All-English ties are less controlled — like a pinball machine. But when you are playing Barcelona it is more difficult as they have control and they can play with the pace of the game.
“They are very smart to move the pace of the game up, but also a little down so you think that you are in control and then all of a sudden they strike.
“But the players have been through this. It is very hectic but that is what football is about. Of course we are preparing the detail on getting control of their power and danger but also they have to have in mind that we can harm them as well.”
Chelsea can also travel to Spain with a hearty endorsement from one of their favourite sons, the West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola, ringing in their ears. The Italian was a member of the side ripped apart 5-1 in extra time by a Rivaldo-inspired Barcelona in the 2000 quarter-finals but expects his old club to ensure a second consecutive all-English final in Rome next month.
“I don’t think there were many people who gave them a hope against Liverpool but this team has a fantastic desire to win,” Zola said. “There is a strong core to the team and they are very experienced now. I think they can do it.”
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