Arguably the biggest match of the group stages (bigger than Inter and Bayern, bigger than Madrid and Lyon). Enough has been written about the rivalry between the two sides, so I’ll focus on the key issues that will have an impact on the match result.
Hilario looks set to start in goal for Chelsea with Cech out for several months and Cudicini still recovering from his knock. Chelsea could spring a surprise by putting him in goal, but it would be unwise considering that Cudicini was knocked out on the pitch and should be rested for at least a week. Cudicini himself has said that he’s fine, but I doubt that he’ll be cleared for training just yet, and this isn’t as crucial a match (although Chelsea would want to win to top the group).
Chelsea top the group, and will be happy to come away with a draw (although a win here would literally guarantee them winning Group A). Barcelona, on the other hand, know that this is an excellent opportunity to take points away from a team that is severely rattled from injuries to two of the nicest people in the squad.
The other thing that can affect the result is the pitch – like last season, Chelsea have used the period before their match with Barcelona to do ‘maintenance work’ on the pitch, a excuse that sounds perfectly reasonable but is as coincidental as Chelsea being paired together with Liverpool last season and Barca this season. Barcelona were good enough to overcome any problems they might had last time around, and they will come fully prepared for anything that Chelsea will have to throw at them.
As far as form is concerned, Barcelona are on the top again with Ronaldinho and Messi slowly regaining their touch. Sheva and Lamps still have to hit top gear for Chelsea, while Ballack has been out with a suspension.
Prediction: Chelsea 1 – 2 Barcelona. Chelsea will keep it tight and fight hard, but Barca should be able to put through a goal or two. It all depends on who gets the first goal – if Chelsea get it, the game could be over and we could see the rest of the match being played in Chelsea’s half. If Barcelona get it, there might yet be a couple of goals more in this game.
Whatever happens, Barca can’t afford to lose, and Chelsea don’t want to. Usually, that’s enough for a top game but with Mourinho imbuing is players with extra layers of ‘us-against-the-world’ machoism in the wake of the Reading match, the match promises to be full of incident.