Belfast Telegraph

I can't sleep thinking about Barcelona and Messi: Chelsea boss Conte

By Mark Bryans

Chelsea boss Antonio Conte has revealed he has suffered sleepless nights plotting the downfall of Barcelona and Lionel Messi.

The Blues host the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against the Catalan giants at Stamford Bridge tonight looking to maintain their impressive record against Messi's men.

Barcelona's history against Chelsea is best summed up by their semi-final meeting in 2012 when they surrendered a two-goal lead to crash out at the Nou Camp as Roberto di Matteo's side went on to lift the Champions League for the first time.

But, despite a league win over rock-bottom West Brom and FA Cup progression at the expense of Championship strugglers Hull, Chelsea still head into this heavyweight contest having won just four of their last 12 games.

That has led to intense scrutiny on Conte's position, despite the fact the Italian led Chelsea to the Premier League title last season.

Following the 4-0 win over Hull on Friday night, Conte admitted he has been kept awake planning how to beat the free-flowing La Liga leaders.

"In the days after the game in the FA Cup, I must be honest, it was a bit difficult to sleep well," he said. "When you have to play this type of game, you have to prepare. You have to prepare everything. You have to prepare big things, but the smaller details too.

"We have an idea. We have a plan in our heads. I think that, in this specific moment, it's very important to pick the players who are in top form and then try and do our best to win."

All eyes will be on Messi as the Barcelona talisman looks to score his first goal against Chelsea, having drawn a blank in his previous eight outings.

Conte knows it will be difficult to keep Messi quiet.

"We are talking about the best player in the world," he said when asked about a plan to cope with the Argentina ace. "Messi has the capacity to solve the situation and create a chance when you are not seeing the chance.

"We are talking about a fantastic player. We have to pay great attention, but not only to Messi.

"We have to know that, during the game, we must be prepared to suffer. But, at the same time, we must have the idea to go and score at any moment."

Chelsea boast their own attacking arsenal, including Eden Hazard. The Belgium forward has been linked with a move to Barcelona's fierce rivals Real Madrid in recent weeks, but he refused to comment on his future other than to state he is "very happy" at Stamford Bridge.

Hazard has drawn comparisons with the likes of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo given his supreme ability. But he concedes he is still aiming to be as good as the two men considered the best in the game.

"It's good to be compared with the greatest ever, Messi or Ronaldo. But I'm completely different," he said. "We play in a different league. I try to do my job and try to reach their level, because they are the best in the world. Every season I try and do my best.

"You want to shine when you play the best in the world. If I want to reach that level, I need to have a great game."

Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde, meanwhile, labelled Chelsea counterpart Conte as "one of the best managers in the world".

Conte's position has been in question with Chelsea failing to put up a strong defence of their title, but he received a ringing endorsement from Valverde -whose Barcelona side are seven points clear at the La Liga summit.

"He is one of the best managers in the world with a great record," the former Athletic Bilbao boss said. "Not only what he has shown at Chelsea, but previously with Juventus and the Italian national team, you can see the quality of his coaching in his teams.

"He has the classic Italian methods, very strong defence who can counter at any moment. Chelsea have a unique style of football, they know their game. The English style of football is a unique, physical style, but they play good football as well.

"Any moment is bad to play Chelsea. They have the same qualities they had last year. They may not have had the best season, but they are still so strong.

"They have been better in the last two games. With Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata, Pedro and Willian they have such quality up front."

Belfast Telegraph

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