Barcelona head coach Ernesto Valverde wishes Chelsea had won their Champions League group so they did not have to play them in the round of 16, but claims ‘any time is a bad time’ to face the Premier League title holders.
The two clubs were drawn together after Chelsea finished second behind Roma in Group C and Barcelona players were seen training under the floodlights at Stamford Bridge on Monday night ahead of Tuesday’s first leg.
Speaking in west London before their final session, Valverde admits he would have wished to avoid Chelsea at this early stage of the competition, but insists his players are looking forward to the challenge of playing the English champions.
He told reporters: ‘We wish Chelsea had won their group so we didn’t have to play them right now, but any time is a bad time to face Chelsea.
‘They have been getting better in the last few games and in [Eden] Hazard, [Alvaro] Morata, Pedro and Willian they have a lot of quality up front. We are talking about the current Premier League champions and we look forward to playing them.’
The runaway La Liga leaders were getting reacquainted with the famous stadium on Monday, where they have enjoyed significant highs and endured crushing lows since Chelsea emerged as European heavyweights with the help of Roman Abramovich.
In 2005, they found themselves 3-0 down within 19 minutes before going onto lose 5-4 on aggregate in the round of 16 but, conversely, in 2009 they qualified for the Champions League final after Andreas Iniesta’s late, late winner.
Either way, Valverde was keen to dismiss how much past games will influence this latest fixture and says his side must instead focus on the task at hand.
He said: ‘Of course previous games do count, but it has little to do with what will happen tomorrow. Some key players have changed since last time, there is a little rivalry there, which might make it more exciting, but for us it is another game in the Champions League.’
Barcelona are favourites going into the tie but their progression to the quarter-finals could rely on Lionel Messi finally breaking his duck against the Blues.
The Argentine has failed to find the back of the net in eight appearances and 655 minutes on the pitch against the Blues, even missing a penalty against them in 2012.
Asked whether the poor record will be weighing on Messi’s mind, Valverde said: ‘It is a huge tie, for Leo and the team. We know Leo hasn’t had much luck against Chelsea in the past but we have to move on.’
Hazard is Chelsea’s answer to Messi and Antonio Conte will need the diminutive Belgian at his very best in both legs of this tie.
Likewise, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic recognised Hazard as a ‘world-class’ footballer but said that while he is clearly their best player, he is not the only player who can hurt them.
The Croatian said: ‘Hazard is a world-class player and the most important player for Chelsea but Chelsea is not only Hazard. We have to be ready to stop him.
‘We know he is very fast one against one and I think his last games he has been in really good form. We have to be ready for him but also the whole team.’