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Saturday, April 25, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Chelsea up against formidable foe in Barca


LONDON — It was not so much a football display as a recital.

Christopher Davies

Another festival of goals and another outpouring of Catalan pride at Nou Camp as Barcelona beat Sevilla 4-0.

Chelsea meets Pep Guardiola's Dream Team in the Champions League semifinals next week and it was warned it will have to be perfect to beat football's equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Chelsea spies who were at Nou Camp on Wednesday to see Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes set a new club record of 622 minutes without conceding a goal, will need the technique of a super spin doctor to present a positive view to manager Guus Huddink.

Manolo Jimenez, the Sevilla coach, said: "Look at Barcelona. Chelsea are strong opponents but Barca play football like no one else in Europe. To beat Barcelona, a team has to play perfectly."

I was at Nou Camp to see goals by Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto'o, Xavi and Thierry Henry tear Sevilla, the third best team in Spain and therefore one of the best sides in Europe, apart.

All this without Lionel Messi who had a stomach upset, which Hiddink may also suffer from once he reads his spies' reports.

The star of the show was the impeccable and irresistible Iniesta whose performance in midfield left Barca coach Guardiola telling the press: "I cannot think of words to describe him. That's your job."

Sometimes our job is not easy, honest.

But Guardiola wants the Champions League favorites to do even better. He said: "The team have great confidence. I am happy with the way we are playing but there is always scope to improve."

How wonderful it must be to be Valdes. The Spaniard is little more than an average goalkeeper, but I could play in goal for this team and look good (OK, I exaggerate, but you get my drift).

So does Barca have weaknesses?

Not so much weaknesses but some areas less strong than others.

Valdes makes the occasional error, probably because he is half asleep through inactivity. Barca is so confident (and rightly so) it can be over-elaborate with its intricate passing that it loses possession.

It is not particularly dangerous from corners, lacking aerial strength and . . . well, that's pretty well it.

Dani Alves is a right-winger masquerading as a right-back.

Left-back Abidal is more defensive than the Brazilian, with Puyol and Martinez completing a back-four that are often unsung heroes, overshadowed by the attacking superstars.

Anchoring the midfield is the imposing figure of Toure Yaya, but the brother of Arsenal's Kolo can use the ball with the same skill he shows when winning it.

Then there are the Famous Five, the deadliest, most affective and nigh-on unstoppable goals-machine.

Iniesta and Xavi are the complete midfielders, combining pace, power, tenacity and technique . . . they give Barca a tandem no other team possesses.

Up front are Messi, Eto'o and Henry, who have scored 61 of Barcelona's 89 goals in La Liga.

So, stop them and you stop Barca — a slightly easier task might be taming a polar bear to be a house pet.

However, it would be wrong to underestimate or dismiss Chelsea and not just because it has in Hiddink a coach supreme.

Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Michael Ballack give them a physical presence in midfield not even Barca can match.

Didier Drogba is in the best form of his career, the moody Blue leading Chelsea's attack superbly and obviously motivated by Hiddink's coaching and man-management.

Hiddink has predicted a feast of attacking football when the teams meet, and he cannot wait for the ties both as a manager and a fan.

While he admitted that trying to halt the free-scoring Catalans is as big a test as he's faced as a manager, the Dutchman also conceded he loves to watch "beautiful" Barca, and especially the magician that is Messi.

Hiddink said: "We will face a very beautiful team in Barcelona. They can play wonderful football, I like to see that, not just because I am now the opposing manager but also because I am a lover of good football. They are always nice to see.

"We expect to see a very attacking Barcelona. Chelsea have the character not to sit back. It is impossible in this team even if I say 'hey guys let's sit back and defend.'

"It won't happen because there is this desire in the team to play football as well."

Ashley Cole, who has a better record against Messi than most fullbacks, is suspended for the first leg at Nou Camp.

Hiddink said: "Messi is one of the most beautiful players in the world, very attractive, but in these two games I hope he is not delivering and producing what he normally does. I have to think about how to do that. We still have a little bit of time. We shall see."

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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