Eden Hazard eager to prove his pedigree against Barcelona
Chelsea renew their Champions League rivalry against Barcelona tonight with Eden Hazard eager to prove his pedigree at this elite level and justify the regular comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Hazard, who was a semi-finalist in this competition in 2014, has offered only glimpses of his qualities in previous European campaigns but will have an opportunity to make a more eye-catching impact as the unbeaten leaders of La Liga visit Stamford Bridge. Antonio Conte is considering using the Belgian as a false number 9 with Álvaro Morata having played only 49 minutes of football in the last five weeks and with his side prepared to play on the counter.
Yet their leading scorer has his own motivation to impress. “There is more to come from me in this competition,” said Hazard, who has never played against Barça and has only once been an opponent of Messi, in Belgium's defeat by Argentina at the 2014 World Cup in Brasilia.
“Every game I try to play my best football, in the Premier League and, after we didn't play in the Champions League last season, back [at this level] this year.
“I've played a few good games this season: Atlético Madrid away, Roma here, and against Madrid. You want to shine when you play the best in the world. If I want to reach that level, I need to do a great game. It's good to be compared with the greatest ever, Messi or Ronaldo.
“But I'm completely different. I try to do my job and try to reach their level, because they are the best in the world. But if you want to be one of the best, you have to play well in the big games. This is a big game and we are Chelsea. We are the champions of England. We are ready. We can face them, we can beat them. Let's go for it.” Sleepless nights
Conte, who will have Marcos Alonso available at left wing-back after a hamstring problem, admitted to sleepless nights since last Friday's FA Cup fifth-round win over Hull City as he prepared for the first leg of this last-16 tie. “We have to play a perfect game against Barcelona if we want to win,” said the manager. “On paper you start these two games with one favourite and this is Barcelona, so it was difficult to sleep well after the FA Cup tie.
“You have to prepare everything for a game like this, from the big things to the smallest details. We have an idea. We have a plan in our heads. In this specific moment it's very important to pick the players who are at the top of their form.”
Barcelona wanted to avoid facing Chelsea in the Champions League last 16, according to their manager, Ernesto Valverde , who is wary of the “incredible” form shown by England's representatives in the competition this season.
Chelsea were runners-up in Group C behind Roma – who are third in Serie A – only on the head-to-head rule. Valverde's own side finished three points clear of Juventus to win Group D, and made no secret of the fact he would have preferred the standings to be reversed.
“We wish Chelsea had finished first in their group so we didn't have to play them,” Valverde said. “They're the Premier League champions, a very strong team there on merit. English teams this year are in incredible form, much better than in previous years. Chelsea might be the same. We know that, because the English have such a strong league, they'll all be up there competing.”
The 2-0 win at Eibar on Saturday ensured Barcelona remain seven points clear at the top of La Liga. The consensus was Eibar's high-pressing style proved a useful warm-up for what they will face at Stamford Bridge; Valverde said Chelsea pose a different level of problem but their system is not unfamiliar.
“Chelsea have a unique style of football and know their own game. The English style of football is very unique, very physical, but they play good football as well. It's different playing Chelsea because of their formation, but Girona play with a similar system in La Liga so we've played against it before.” Speculation
That inimitable style, according to Valverde, owes everything to Antonio Conte. Before Chelsea's wins over West Brom and Hull there had been speculation the Italian might not even be in charge for Tuesday's fixture but Valverde views him as a reference point.
“He's one of the best managers in the world with a great record. You can see the quality of his coaching in the teams he coaches. He's got the classic Italian methods: very strong defensively and can counter at any moment. It's very clearly a team run by him.”
Valverde was, along with the midfielder Ivan Rakitic , repeatedly questioned about the sides' extensive Champions League history. Rakitic said the subject had come up in conversation with Andres Iniesta , whose dramatic winner in 2009 and memories of Chelsea's thumping 4-2 win four years previously were both mentioned, and his manager admitted they add to the sense of occasion.
“Of course, previous games do count,” Valverde said. “You have to look at them, though they have little to do with what will happen tomorrow in reality. The key players change from time to time – Messi and Iniesta are still there, obviously. There's a bit of rivalry between the teams, which is a good thing. It makes it more of a spectacle, more interesting.”