Blues turn up, United still missing

OF all the people, in all the penalty areas, in all the world … it had to fall to him. Or, rather, them.

Andres Iniesta got it first and slid an eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head pass to Lionel Messi and that was that.

Antonio Conte bent double in despair. All the planning, all the preparation, all the sleepless nights … just one careless pass and it's all ruined. Barcelona go to the Nou Camp with an away goal and one foot in the quarterfinals.

The trouble with master plans is that you need masters to execute them. There is no room for even a momentary loss of concentration. But Andreas Christiansen's "assist" to his near namesake should not be allowed to overshadow what was the performance of the week by the London side.

It was the old Chelsea, the cussed, defiant, unbowed and uncowed-by-lofty-reputations Chelsea. More like the Chelsea of 2016-17. To Barcelona, it threatened to be the Chelsea of 2012.

And it was the old Conte – well, last season's Conte. Not just prowling the technical area but threatening to set it on fire. Yep, the old self-combustible Conte that has been so sorely missed.

Was it an inflammable twin that we have been watching? It was surely not the same guy who barely raised a whimper at those three-goal thrashings by Bournemouth and Watford.

Where his old incendiary self has been hiding only he and the club's hierarchy can explain, but where he's going could be another matter.

Not only did he rediscover his drawing board and his mojo, he showed he never lost the dressing room. And you wouldn't put it past him to get a result in Barcelona.

But if this was a more familiar Chelsea, it was not the old Barca. Yes, they were ruthless when it mattered and had 73% of possession, but they did not boss the game.

The home side had far more shots, hit the woodwork twice and looked the more likely scorers throughout. With just 27% of the ball, they were the more incisive and threatening side.

With the loss of Neymar, Barca claim they have morphed into a more solid unit as their undefeated record in La Liga suggests – but they are no longer as lethal.
Luis Suarez is not the same player he was in MSN – the volume and picture quality are just not as sharp.

Messi still made his trademark scurrying sorties but for the most part up Chelsea cul-de-sacs and blind alleys while Iniesta, one moment of magic apart, is a fading force. You can see why they bought Philippe Coutinho.

They are favourites to progress but with Real Madrid and Bayern Munich showing ominous signs of form, they will be pressed to lift Old Big Ears for a sixth time.

The only quibble with an almost perfect stifling of the Catalans was that Conte, as is his won't, left his substitutions too late.

Alvaro Morata only had time to get a yellow card while Olivier Giroud didn't come on at all – a mystery when the Frenchman stole so many late winners for Arsenal.

But Chelsea's was the performance of the week which contrasted with Manchester United's non-performance. Of the week? Well, Besiktas deserve that dubious honour with a 5-0 loss and a man sent off.

But United's was another not worthy of their once-celebrated name. By several light years, it was the lamest Champions League showing of the five EPL teams.
Fortunately for them, their miserable, sputtering parking of the bus in Seville was salvaged by yet more brilliance from David de Gea.

The Spaniard's cheetah-like reflexes averted a pasting and saved Jose Mourinho from an even greater shellacking in the media.

But they didn't quite overshadow another episode of the Mourinho-Pogba imbroglio.

The manager must have cursed his luck – he certainly cursed the medics – when Ander Herrera's hamstring went after 17 minutes and Pogba's eagerly observed penance on the bench was cut short.

But where we might have expected a storming, statement performance from the Frenchman, he delivered yet another infuriating cameo.

United are just not clicking – nothing is working, not even Alexis Sanchez who, if Mourinho isn't careful, could become Pogba 2.0.

Where this leaves Sunday's big clash with Chelsea, of all people, is anybody's guess. The Blues were at home and played a night earlier, but they put a lot more into that game than United did in Spain.

Whether Chelsea will be deflated or buoyed by their performance will be critical – it should be the latter. United seem permanently deflated as does the crowd. But Old Trafford just might rouse itself against their old foes in blue.

As for the other big game, the League Cup final, Manchester City will have had three extra days to prepare over Arsenal – so we know what the excuse will be if Arsene Wenger's side loses.

Against that, City had the chastening experience of losing to Wigan, losing their hopes of a historic Quad and losing their rag. Contrast all that with, we assume, sailing serenely past Ostersunds in the Europa League overnight, aided by a 3-0 lead Arsenal took from the first leg.

Still, without Benjamin Mendy, City will again be without his replacement Fabian Delph who was given a straight red on Monday, but their confidence might have taken a knock. On the other hand, it could make them more determined.

Looking at how well Pep has bonded this disparate squad, you feel it is more likely to be the latter and Arsenal may not have Mesut Ozil. A win at Wembley should assuage City's disappointment and they'd better not slip up – it's not just the Big Three who could make the Treble difficult, there's Liverpool and Spurs too.

**Bob's latest book, Living the Dream, is available at Borders, MPH, Popular, Kinokuniya and Gerakbudaya bookstores. **