Getty Images

Conte gets tactics spot on but Messi has last laugh

Leave a comment

LONDON — Before the game Antonio Conte‘s tactics were the talk of the press room at Stamford Bridge, plus pubs and television studios around the world.

After the game his decision to play Eden Hazard in a false nine position, flanked by Willian and Pedro, and leave out his two star center forwards, Alvaro Morata and Olivier Giroud, was lauded. This was a reminder of the man who led Chelsea to Premier League glory last season and also a reminder of Chelsea’s successful past against the Catalan giants as they’re now unbeaten in their last eight UCL encounters as the clash of styles continues.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Recap

Conte is under pressure with just five wins in his last 13 games in all competitions, but this was a tactical masterclass from the Italian coach as his side totally bought into his plan and without a mistake from Andreas Christensen late on, it would have been an archetypal Italian defensive display leading to a 1-0 win to take to the Nou Camp.

Speaking to reporters after the game, Conte believed his players were incredibly unlucky to not win the game as Willian struck the post twice in the first half and they threatened multiple times on the counter.

“We were very close to playing the perfect game. One mistake and we know very well when you make a mistake against Barcelona and players like Messi, Suarez and Iniesta you pay. It is a pity because tonight, at the end of the game, we are disappointed for the final result,” Conte said. “We hit the post twice with Willian. There is a bit of disappointment but I think that this game must give us confidence to trust that in the second leg that qualification is open. It won’t be easy. We must be realistic. We are talking about Barcelona. Tonight we showed that if we are ready to work very hard together defensively, but at the same time you continue to have the right feeling when you win the ball to create chances to score, we can try to do something incredible at the Nou Camp.”

The one wrench in Conte’s plan was always going to be one incredible player: Lionel Messi.

Without a goal in eight games (730 minutes in total) against Chelsea, the five-time World Player of the Year stroked home a killer away goal 15 minutes from time to swing the tie back into Barcelona’s favor after Conte’s masterclass. Messi, 30, once again arrived at the pivotal moment for the La Liga leaders and the Argentine star sprung into life as Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta made the most of Christensen’s mistake.

Messi’s presence on the ball sparked nervousness within the Chelsea defense but it looked like he would leave empty hand once again until he was gifted a chance to silence the doubters.

Barcelona had 73 percent of possession on Tuesday and attempted 887 passes to Chelsea’s 325. They looked comfortable in a cauldron of noise at Stamford Bridge and even though they were vulnerable on the counter, they never looked too flustered but only had two real chances via Paulinho in the first half and Suarez in the second.

Despite following the blueprint to get a result against Barcelona almost to a tee, Cesc Fabregas believes the Blues will have to be more expansive at the Nou Camp in the second leg to get through to the quarterfinals.

“We have showed that we can compete and we will need another excellent performance at the Nou Camp to go through,” Fabregas told BT Sport. “You have to have a lot of personality to play against this team who has 70 percent of the ball. We have to go there to attack and score because 90 minutes defending at the Nou Camp is an eternity, it is a suicide mission. We have to play our game.”

As for Barcelona’s manager Ernesto Valverde, he admitted that he was a happy man to escape West London with a draw but urged his side to respect Chelsea’s style of play in the second leg.

“It has been a clash of styles this game, two different teams,” Ernesto said. “We tried to control the game, had a lot of possession and got close to the area. We were just lacking a little bit of extra quality in the final third. They defended very well. The good thing is we managed to get an error and get a goal out of them. We will go back to the Camp Nou happy.”

Conte was happy his players followed his gameplan and believes they must believe they can deliver killers blows on the break in Barcelona in two weeks time with Willian, Pedro and Hazard key to the plan.

“I must be pleased because the players did a great effort and they followed the plan we prepared,” Conte said. “In 15 days we must be ready to prepare for another game against Barcelona. We must be prepared to suffer together but in the moment you are suffering, you must know that the moment you are in possession you can create a chance to score.”

Chelsea need at least one goal to go through or to take the game to extra time, but given their spirited display at Stamford Bridge there’s renewed hope that Conte can mastermind another defensive masterplan to get them into the last eight for the first time since 2014.

Report: Newcastle activates $12m release clause of ex-Arsenal youth

Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Reports out of Turkey say Newcastle United have finally struck the transfer market for a new No. 10.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Aksam reports that Rafa Benitez got the Magpies hierarchy to activate a near $12 million release clause for Besiktas midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup.

The 25-year-old was part of Arsenal’s youth set-up until 2012, making two League Cup appearances in 2011-12 before moving to Besiktas.

Dutch-born Ozyakup is 35-times capped with a goal for Turkey, twice captaining the Crescent-Stars.

Ozyakup lost playing time to Talisca this season, and registered just four assists in 24 appearances. In 219 appearances for Besiktas, he’s posted 27 goals with 50 assists.

Like the move for Newcastle?

Lukaku pens inspiring post on hard-scrabble upbringing

AP Photo/Matthias Schrader
Leave a comment

Manchester United and Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku has an inspiring and emotional post in The Players’ Tribune which tugs at the heart strings and explains his competitive fire.

[ MORE: West Ham adds Diop ]

Lukaku talks about how his family’s poverty caused him to become a fierce competitor in the hopes of meeting his dreams head-on and providing for his family.

The Belgian, 25, scored twice in his side’s 3-0 World Cup-opening win over Panama earlier this week, and is now far removed from his youth, but he tells his story as if it lives fresh in his mind.

From The Players’ Tribune:

There were even times when my mum had to “borrow” bread from the bakery down the street. The bakers knew me and my little brother, so they’d let her take a loaf of bread on Monday and pay them back on Friday.

Lukaku also talks about racism in football, his debut for Anderlecht, and that aforementioned competitive drive. It’s 100 percent worth the read.

West Ham signs club record center back from Toulouse

whufc.com
Leave a comment

West Ham has reportedly set a club record with its latest signing under new manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Issa Diop is the player, the 21-year-old Toulouse captain and center back costing the Irons around $29 million.

[ MORE: Arsenal signs Leno ]

Diop scored three goals with an assist and eight yellow cards in 31 Ligue 1 matches this season, giving the young defender 95 apps, six goals, three assists, and 23 yellows since debuting with the senior team at 18.

Capped by France at every level below the senior team, Diop’s 2.2 interceptions per game ranked sixth in Ligue 1.

Toulose finished 18th in Ligue 1, but won its promotion/relegation playoff to stay in the French top flight.

From WHUFC.com:

“I am very happy to sign for such a historic, English club, and I hope to show my best here. I am a very ambitious player and West Ham is a very ambitious club, as we’ve seen with the appointment of the new coach. I hope to help the team win lots of games and make the fans happy.”

Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show: Episode 3

Leave a comment

In the third episode of Layla’s Occasionally Unbiased Football Show, England pulls out a massive win while VAR finds its way into the World Cup spotlight.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ] 

There will be plenty more to come over the next few weeks, with the show coming via the Men In Blazers.

Click play on the video above to watch the first episode in full.