LONDON – If at first you don’t succeed the saying goes and it proved fitting for Willian and Lionel Messi as both scored in an absorbing 1-1 draw between Chelsea and Barcelona in the first leg of their Champions League last 16 tie on Tuesday.
Chelsea’s outstanding performer Willian could hardly believe his bad luck as twice before halftime he rattled the woodwork.
But the Brazilian was finally rewarded for his persistence in the 62nd minute when he fired Chelsea into the lead on an electrifying night at Stamford Bridge.
Barcelona’s talisman Messi had fired blanks on eight previous occasions against Chelsea, most notably in a shock semi-final defeat six years ago, and he rarely had a glimpse of goal on his ninth meeting with the Londoners.
When home defender Andreas Christensen suffered a rush of blood in the 75th minute, however, Messi pounced.
It edged the tie towards Barcelona, although they could count themselves fortunate after being out-manouvered against a Chelsea side who, apart from one lapse, played a ‘perfect’ game according to manager Antonio Conte.
”It is a pity. I am very proud for my players. They followed what we prepared,“ Conte said. ”Tonight we were a bit unlucky.
“I think when you play this game you must have a plan and respect the characteristics of the opponent. Our plan was really good. We are talking about 1-1 and maybe we deserved more.”
Unbeaten La Liga leaders Barcelona enjoyed suffocating possession, especially in the first half, but despite the probings of Messi and Andres Iniesta, they could provide precious little ammunition for striker Luis Suarez.
“It was a clash of styles, two different teams,” Barca coach Ernesto Valverde said. “We had the game under control when they scored their goal. Perhaps we didn’t create many clear-cut chances, but we managed to force an error and get the draw.”
A rivalry that had been dormant for six years resumed with a gripping game of cat and mouse.
Barcelona zipped the ball around in eye-pleasing style but apart from Paulinho’s wasteful header they struggled to lure Chelsea into mistakes.
Despite spending long periods diligently shutting doors, the hosts were the more clinical in possession, with Eden Hazard and Willian both menacing outlets.
Willian fully justified his starting berth after being used chiefly as a substitute this season and could have been celebrating a stunning hat-trick.
In the 34th minute Paulinho lost the ball and as Chelsea worked it to Willian, he shuffled to his right and sent a curling right-footer thudding against the post.
Shortly before halftime Willian again proved elusive but this time the opposite post rescued Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who was a mere spectator for both attempts.
Conte resembled a manic orchestra conductor throughout the match, going through his full repertoire of gesticulations.
He was pumping his fists with joy midway through the second half as Hazard teased the Barca defence and fed Willian who engineered a yard of space before firing a low right-foot shot inside the left-hand post.
Chelsea deserved their lead and even threatened a second goal before young defender Andreas Christensen betrayed his relative inexperience with a moment of madness.
The 21-year-old’s aimless ball across his own area was seized upon by Iniesta and when he cut it back to Messi the Argentine duly delivered to send Barca’s travelling fans wild.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of the hosts and, although they avoided any more damage, they will need a repeat of their 2012 exploits to keep alive their European hopes.(Reuters)