Antonio Conte insists Barcelona are not infallible and that it would be dangerous for his rejuvenated team to focus solely on stopping Lionel Messi – who has never scored against Chelsea – when the two sides meet at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening.
Chelsea host Ernesto Valverde’s side in the first leg of the Champions League last-16 for the first time since beating the La Liga leaders in the semi-finals of the competition in 2012, the same year they went on to lift the trophy after edging out Bayern Munich on penalties.
After a difficult start to this year, which Chelsea began with five straight draws and later consecutive Premier League defeats by Bournemouth and Watford, they have since cantered to victories over West Brom and Hull City – the latter to advance to the last eight of the FA Cup. Conte, though, knows Barcelona will prove an altogether different proposition.
“On one hand you know this team is one of the best in the world – maybe they are favourites to win this competition,” Conte said. “On the other hand we must be excited because we have a great opportunity to play a massive game against a really strong team and to show which is our level.
“For sure we are talking about one of the best teams in the world. We have to try to, I repeat, have the perfect game, the perfect game to try to make the best decisions. For this type of team, because this is a different opponent, they have fantastic characteristics with the ball. But they can have weaknesses without the ball and we have to try and exploit this.”
Messi, the Argentinian forward who had 30 goals before Saturday’s match against Eibar to his name this season for club and country but, in eight attempts, has failed to score against Chelsea and Conte has no plans for that statistic to change any time soon.
“I hope to continue this tradition but I repeat we are talking about a fantastic player and we must have great respect,” the Italian, who won the Champions League with Juventus in 1996, said. “But at the same time we must try to be excited to play this type of game and this challenge.
“We are talking about one of the best players in the world but, for sure, we have to work together, work with the team and not only with one player to try and stop him. Because I think that when we feel this type of challenge to man-mark [a player], Messi can become very dangerous.”
Cesc Fàbregas played 62 minutes of the routine 4-0 win over Hull on Friday and is expected to feature against Barça, his boyhood club whom he left for Arsenal as a teenager in 2003. The Spaniard joined Chelsea in 2014 after three seasons back with Barcelona and, while he admits it will be a special game for him, Fàbregas will put his friendship with players such as Andrés Iniesta to one side when they do battle on Tuesday.
“I have big friends [there], friends that I played with since I was 13 years old, so there is contact,” Fàbregas said. “They will try to beat me when I am on the pitch and I will try to beat them when I am inside the stadium. Football is a fantastic thing but, when you play against each other, it changes completely.”
Of Iniesta, the evergreen 33-year-old midfielder, Fàbregas believes his former team-mate remains so effective because “age does not really matter” for a player of his “quality and intelligence”.
Fàbregas is adamant Chelsea can inflict damage on a Barcelona team that have lost only once since 16 August and remain a “great side” under Valverde, who took charge of the club last summer.
“They try to put the first pressure very, very high – [they] always work towards the ball,” Fàbregas said. “If we can [get] past this first phase of their pressure, then we have the content to do that, and not put ourselves under too much pressure, then I think we can hurt them because they will leave a lot of spaces at the back. Hopefully we can give a good image of what we can do and do a good performance.”