The pre-match anticipation is building in the Transfer Tavern ahead of Chelsea’s last-sixteen Champions League encounter against FC Barcelona this evening.
Antonio Conte welcomes Ernesto Valverde’s imperious Barcelona side to Stamford Bridge this evening for a fixture which used to be something of a regular encounter in the footballing calendar. Between the years 2006 and 2012, Chelsea and Barcelona went head-to-head in the Champions League on 8 occasions.
Within those encounters Chelsea suffered defeat just once when they lost 2-1 to the Catalan giants in the first-leg of a last-sixteen encounter at Stamford Bridge. Barcelona eventually went on the qualify for the quarter-finals with a 3-2 aggregate win, but the form guide since then certainly suggests Chelsea are in with a genuine chance of defeating their opponents over two legs.
Chelsea’s form in recent weeks may not inspire supreme confidence amongst The Blues faithful, but cup competitions often give players an opportunity to put their league woes behind them and rediscover their best form in an environment of reduced pressure and expectancy.
With that being said, Conte will be desperately hoping that this is the case for his typically reliable French midfield general N’Golo Kante (valued at £54 million by Transfermarkt). During Chelsea’s title-winning season of 2016/17, Kante was immense at the centre of midfield and his displays were arguably the most instrumental factor in their dominance of the English top-flight, but he has struggled to replicate those performances this season.
It could be argued that the arrival of Tiemoue Bakayoko has upset the balance of Chelsea’s midfield and consequently had a knock on effect on Kante’s form. But regardless of the reasoning behind Kante’s apparent slump this season, he must prove his credentials as one of the greatest midfielders in European football by bossing the midfield tonight against the likes of Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic.
In many ways, the performance of Kante dictates the quality of Chelsea’s overall performance, so Conte must ensure that he is firing on all cylinders tonight to ensure his side go to the Nou Camp in three weeks time with every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals.