Antonio Conte's game plan was working to perfection, but a killer mistake gave Barcelona the opening it needed, while Besiktas gave Bayern Munich all the help it would need with an early red card in their Champions League bout.
A Lionel Messi equalizer with 15 minutes remaining secured Barcelona a 1-1 draw away to Chelsea in the first leg of their Champions league last-16 tie at Stamford Bridge, undoing plenty of good work from the hosts and giving the Argentine star his first goal against the Blues in a big spot.
Chelsea had successfully frustrated Barcelona and had taken the lead through Willian, who also hit the post twice, before an Andreas Christensen error opened the door for the visitors to pull even.
In the day's other match, Bayern Munich as good as sealed its place in the quarterfinals with a 5-0 home victory over Besiktas, which had Domagoj Vida sent off after 17 minutes. Two goals apiece from Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski and a goal from Kingsley Coman sealed a comfortable victory.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Error undermines Chelsea's brilliant plan
For 75 minutes, it looked as though Antonio Conte could celebrate a striking tactical victory. He had allowed Barcelona the ball but had successfully frustrated his opponent while offering sufficient threat to the point that Chelsea had not merely taken the lead but had also twice hit the woodwork–all from Willian.
But then with Chelsea perhaps distracted by a lucky escape after Antonio Rudiger had seemed to clip Luis Suarez at the edge of the box, Christensen played a pass across his box toward Cesc Fabregas. It was a little behind the midfielder, who seemed to hesitate, which allowed Andres Iniesta to gather possession. It took one pass inside as Cesar Azpilicueta lunged in, and Lionel Messi scored his first goal in six games–and his first in nine career matches against Chelsea–to equalize and give Barcelona an away-goal edge.
Conte selected Eden Hazard as a false nine with Pedro and Willian tucked behind him in a return to the 3-4-2-1 that he favored last season. That meant no place for either Alvaro Morata or Olivier Giroud, and that in turn meant that at times Chelsea lacked an outlet and found itself hemmed in, unable to clear its lines. The positive, though, was pace in forward areas and a side that could move quickly from what was effectively a 5-4-1 to a 3-4-3, which made Willian the most threatening presence in the first half.
Most of the game, though, involved Chelsea sitting deep and diligently blocking gaps. In that, perhaps, it was helped by Barcelona’s shape. Barcelona has used the narrow, asymmetric 4-4-2 to some effect this season in big games, but here it meant that, although it dominated possession, it lacked options in forward areas, a particular issue given the dearth of pace in the side.
Jordi Alba’s link-up with Iniesta has been a key feature of Barcelona’s attacking play this season, but here the fullback seemed reluctant to push forward, perhaps concerned by the danger of being exposed by Victor Moses pushing forward from right wingback and linking up with Pedro. That left Barcelona very reliant on Messi for creativity. He had his moments–an effortless dribble past Antonio Rudiger, a finely calibrated cross for Paulinho–but Chelsea dealt with him well. And then, seizing on his one real chance, he scored the decisive goal.
Willian's excellence overshadowed by result
There is an argument that, taking the last three seasons as a whole, Willian has been Chelsea’s most consistent player. He was almost the only player who operated at something close to full capacity in Jose Mourinho’s final half season at the club, and when he’s been selected he’s been consistently threatening this season. The problem was the last campaign when he lost his place when he returned to Brazil because of a family issue and, because of the form of Pedro and Eden Hazard, struggled to get back into the side when he got back.
But Tuesday was all about the 29-year-old. Twice in the first half he hit the post, accelerating by Sergio Busquets to hit one post and cleverly disguising his intentions to smack the other one eight minutes later. Yet still Barcelona didn’t heed the warning. A corner after 62 minutes was pulled back to Willian, who was in remarkable space just outside the box. He calmly shaped a low shot around a clutch of players and into the bottom corner. It wasn’t just the shots, though: Willian was also tireless leading the counter and he will have a vital role to play at Camp Nou in the second leg.
Passive Besiktas leaves Munich without hope
The sale of Cenk Tosun to Everton felt like an acceptance from Besiktas that its Champions league campaign was never going to go much further than the last 16 and that it might as well cash in, even if that meant breaking up a front three that had been hugely effective in the group stage.
If Besiktas had had any hope away to Bayern Munich, it vanished after 17 minutes as Vida was sent off for bringing down Lewandowski as he was clean through after a poor back pass. The Turkish champion held out until two minutes before halftime but by the it had been forced so deep that Muller was onside as the ball bounced to him four yards out before hooking in Bayern's second. From then on it was just a question of how many the hosts would score. Lewandowski hit the post with a free kick and then laid on the second for Kingsley Coman, A deflected Muller shot made it three and Lewandowski added the fourth and fifth in quick succession to remove all doubt before the tie shifts to Turkey.