Fabregas taunts Chelsea as hype builds ahead of Champions League showdown with Barcelona
The Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas raised the stakes ahead of tonight's Champions League semi-final first leg at Stamford Bridge when he said that Chelsea had tried to change under Andre Villas-Boas but had reverted back to their old tried and trusted direct style since his dismissal.
The former Arsenal midfielder said more than once yesterday that his new club faced the Chelsea "we all know" in what will be the English club's sixth semi-final in nine years in the Champions League. Speaking at Stamford Bridge, Fabregas, 24, said that Chelsea had attempted to adopt a different approach under which they built the game up from the back earlier this season, but had abandoned it since.
Fabregas said: "What happened with Villas-Boas was they played more from the back, trying to keep possession and take the initiative. They've gone back to the type of Chelsea that was more successful a few years ago with [Roberto] Di Matteo: playing on the counter, trying to hit the target man, sitting back and using that No 9 as a reference point."
Later he added that Chelsea were in the best form of their season, but maintained that the team had "not changed a lot". "With Villas-Boas maybe they tried to change a bit, but they're now the same Chelsea as when I left [Arsenal last summer]," he said.
It is not yet clear whether Di Matteo will opt for Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres in attack, and he also has a choice to make in midfield between Frank Lampard, who played against Tottenham in the FA Cup semi-final on Sunday, and Raul Meireles. The signs yesterday were that it would be Lampard who would play.
Lampard denied that Chelsea were as predictable as Fabregas might have suggested. He said: "We're mixing the powerful, organised, disciplined game with some very good attacking football. On our day, we can be a match for everyone. But we respect that Barcelona are not only the in-form team now, but the dominant team of the last few years. So we have to be at our best."
Chelsea have not lost a game to Barcelona in the Champions League since the 2-1 defeat in February 2006 at the Nou Camp. They have not lost any of the eight games they have played against Barcelona under the Roman Abramovich regime when they have managed to keep 11 players on the pitch for the full 90 minutes.
With the feeling now that they are weaker than at any time over the seven years they have faced Barcelona, Pep Guardiola warned that Chelsea still represent formidable opponents.
Guardiola dismissed the question of whether he would one day like to manage Chelsea out of hand as "fantasy". "It's hypothetical," he said. "I'm coach of Barcelona. Chelsea have a very good manager because, in the last 10 games, they've made unbelievable results. It's not the time to be talking about that."
On Chelsea, Guardiola said: "They have the same spirit, the same soul, the same foundation. They've changed the manager and a couple of players, but the same players are largely there. I do admire that generation, who have done so well over the last seven years and have got into so many semi-finals and finals, and competed in the Premier League so well. That's not easy. It will be exciting to play them."
Di Matteo confirmed that he will be without the Brazilian centre-back David Luiz, who picked up a hamstring injury on Sunday and will be back in two weeks. The manager said that he knew Barcelona were not always comfortable playing against his club. "They don't like to play against us," he said. "The results in the past show ... we've shown we're a team who can give them problems."
Fabregas courted further controversy when he said that he had been tactically inept at Arsenal and had only learnt how to play in a disciplined fashion since joining Barcelona in the summer. He said: "Before I was free to do whatever on the pitch at Arsenal, and I wasn't tactically good. I was playing wherever I wanted, up and down. Here [at Barcelona] I have to work much more for the team, individually, and think about the team tactically."