Plenty of positives for Antonio Conte as Chelsea bow out of Champions League
By Pete Hall in Barcelona
Last Updated: 15/03/18 7:38am
There has not been a great deal for Antonio Conte to be positive about of late, but despite Barcelona comfortably beating Chelsea at the Nou Camp, the Italian cannot be too displeased with his side's performance, writes Pete Hall.
Poor goalkeeping, missed chances and Lionel Messi - that just about sums up Chelsea's evening in the Nou Camp as they bowed out of the Champions League, losing 4-1 on aggregate.
Thibaut Courtois should have done better with both Messi goals as the Barca superstar took his Champions League career tally to 100, but in this form, Messi is simply unplayable. There are no superlatives left to describe his feats.
Yet, even as Barcelona edged further and further ahead in the tie, Chelsea remained on top for large swathes of the game, just as they were in the first leg.
Chelsea fans enjoying some March sunshine on Barcelona's famous Las Ramblas plazas were surprisingly confident pre-match, despite their side's poor domestic form, and that overtly cocksure attitude came off the back of what they had seen for long periods at Stamford Bridge three weeks ago. The prospect of taking the game to Barcelona again excited those in blue in Catalonia.
That optimism was soon dashed as Messi scored from the tightest of angles inside two minutes - but still Chelsea attacked en masse.
One swift counter from Messi, sashaying past three defenders before squaring for Ousmane Dembele 20 minutes in and it was 2-0 - Barca scoring with each of their first two shots of the match, again against the run of play.
2-0 down, on the back of five defeats in their last 10 in all competitions, all while playing against the might of a Messi-inspired Barca, you'd have forgiven Chelsea for letting their heads drop, but they kept coming and coming.
It was poor decision-making, at crucial times, that has cost them dear in both legs. Every goal was avoidable. Andreas Christensen's inexplicable pass across his own box in the first leg, Courtois' poor positioning for the opener in the Nou Camp, Cesc Fabregas dwelling too long on the ball for the second, and Cesar Azpilicueta's sloppiness for the third - all brilliantly executed by Barca - with a huge helping hand from Chelsea.
Chances kept coming, and going. N'Golo Kante took the ball off Fabregas' foot late in the first half, before Marcos Alonso hit the post with a free-kick just before the interval - the third time the woodwork had denied Chelsea in the tie.
Chelsea had six shots to Barcelona's four in the first half, then another six in the second, had a huge penalty appeal waved away, hit the post again, and were even denied by a goal-saving tackle by Dembele - the ball just wouldn't go in.
"To watch the game you can see that the result is unfair," Conte said after the match. "Our start was terrible, to concede a goal after two minutes, but after this, we tried to play football and dominated for a long time in the game. We hit the post four times. This is very strange. I must be very proud of the commitment of my players they gave everything."
Many of the travelling Chelsea fans stayed behind to applaud their team off the pitch, appreciative of the effort they put in.
Losing 4-1 on aggregate at this stage of the Champions League isn't exactly going to alleviate pressure on Conte's hardened shoulders, but this wasn't a team not playing for their manager - Chelsea did put everything into both legs against the unbeaten La Liga leaders, had their chances, but just didn't take them.
Conte's tactics seemed to work too, in an attacking sense. Chelsea didn't have much of the ball in the first half, but could break quickly with Olivier Giroud acting as the pivot. Willian and Eden Hazard drifted into space, and caused continual problems. Again, there was just no end product.
Take the superhuman Messi out of the equation, and cut out the silly mistakes that proved so costly, and this tie could have a whole different complexion altogether, and such a spirited performance will give fans hope their side's season may have a happy ending yet.