Champions League draw analysis: Can Chelsea keep Lionel Messi quiet to edge out Barcelona?

A closer look at the task facing Antonio Conte's side in the last 16

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Monday 11 December 2017 17:43 GMT
Messi will be closely tracked by N'Golo Kante
Messi will be closely tracked by N'Golo Kante (Getty Images)

One of two properly heavyweight ties in the last 16, with a genuinely profound Champions League history further weighing on it, and yet what makes this match-up all the more engaging and maybe more entertaining is that neither of these sides are quite at their top level.

That might sound remarkable for a Barcelona that are running away with the Spanish league and have Lionel Messi back close to his best, but it is true, and is also emphasised by what has been a subpar European season for Spanish clubs in general.

The specific challenge for Antonio Conte in this match will be to figure out how to limit Messi’s influence, of course, although it could also lead to one of the great duels: the best attacking player in the world against the best defensive player in the world, as it’s difficult to think of a job more suited to N’Golo Kante.

Could this be his career performance to go with his career achievements so far? It represents a big game in Conte’s career, too, since he still hasn’t won a knock-out competition and still hasn’t had a truly momentous Champions League campaign and it now represents the best hope to make this a successful season.

Barcelona aren’t as sensational as they have been, but new manager Ernesto Valverde has made them a more dogged side. They are a bit more calculated, and constrained, if always looking to launch Messi. Complicating that, mind, is the likelihood that the Catalans will strengthen in the summer.

Underscoring this game, then, is the remaining intrigue over Eden Hazard’s future. He looks ready to go another level himself, and a face-off against Messi might only further fire that. It should fire this tie, and is better than being fired by some of the ugliness that has done so in 2005 or 2009.

This might just be their best tie yet, and that is saying something.

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