London: Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi finally opened his account against Chelsea with a 75th-minute equaliser to earn his side a 1-1 draw in a fascinating Champions League last 16, first leg duel at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday.
Willian’s superb 62nd-minute effort looked like giving Chelsea a precious advantage for the second leg in Spain but they undid all their good work by handing Messi an equaliser.
The Argentine maestro, teed up by Andres Iniesta after some sloppy play by the hosts, struck a low shot past keeper Thibaut Courtois for his first goal in nine attempts against Chelsea.
As expected, Barca dominated possession but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were unfortunate not to end with a victory after Willian was twice denied by the woodwork before halftime.
The second leg is on March 14 at the Nou Camp.
One of Europe’s fiercest rivalries had been dormant for six years – since Chelsea’s shock semifinal victory in 2012. But the renewal of hostilities did not disappoint in a gripping game of cat and mouse in west London.
For all Barcelona’s often suffocating possession it was Chelsea who walked in at half-time feeling hard done by. The hosts spent most of the opening period diligently shutting doors at the back as Messi and Iniesta probed for openings in Chelsea’s blue wall.
But when the home side did get the ball they were clinical. In the 34th minute Paulinho gave the ball away cheaply and as Chelsea worked the ball to Willian, he shuffled to his right and sent a curling right-footer thudding against the post.
Willian could not believe his bad luck again shortly before halftime when Barca again invited pressure and this time his left-foot effort smacked the outside of the other post.
On both occasions, Barca keeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen was a mere spectator.
Barcelona had their moments, with Messi, as usual, their chief architect, delivering one cross on a plate for Paulinho who headed wide in front of goal.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte resembled a manic orchestra conductor throughout the first half, going through his full repertoire of gesticulations, while his opposite number Ernesto Valverde was a study in measured calm.
Conte was celebrating wildly in the 62nd minute as Willian’s persistence finally paid off. Again Hazard teased the Barca defence and played a pass infield to workaholic Willian who engineered a yard of space before firing a low right-foot shot inside the left-hand post.
However, all Chelsea’s great work was undone by a moment of sloppiness that was duly punished. Andreas Christensen’s aimless ball across his own area was seized upon by Iniesta and when it was cut back to him Messi did not break stride as he curled his low effort past Courtois.
The goal knocked the stuffing out of the hosts and, although they avoided any more damage, they will need a repeat of their 2012 exploits to keep alive their European hopes.