Lionel Messi finally ended his long-running goal drought against Chelsea as the Barcelona forward scored a 75th-minute equaliser as the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round-of-16 tie ended in a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night.
Antonio Conte’s bold decision to send out the hosts without a recognised centre-forward in their lineup seemed to have been vindicated as Willian struck an excellent goal in the 62nd minute, but Messi would rise to the occasion, on the ninth time of asking, to give La Blaugrana a definitive advantage heading into the second leg.
Chelsea started the first-half slowly, but eventually grew into the game and arguably deserved to be ahead at the interval, with Willian hitting both posts from distance.
Barcelona, playing in a 4-4-2 with Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez leading the line, dominated possession but struggled to craft clear goalscoring opportunities.
The second-half began with the visitors in the ascendancy and Suarez would force Thibaut Courtois into making his first save of the match with an effort from an acute angle, but it was Chelsea who would draw first blood on the night.
Cesc Fabregas, up against his old club, played a corner short to Eden Hazard and the Belgian feigned to cross inside the box but instead laid it off to Wilian at the edge of the box.
With Sergio Busquets in front of him, Willian accelerated with ease from a standstill to leave the midfielder in his wake and fired a low shot past a despairing Marc-Andre ter Stegen to give the Blues a deserved lead.
As Barcelona poured forward in a bid to register the crucial away goal, Chelsea, marshalled by captain Cesar Azpilicueta, looked to soak in the pressure and hold out for a 1-0 win.
It wasn’t to be as Andreas Christensen sought to play the ball across his own box and it was intercepted by the alert Andres Iniesta on the left flank. The diminutive Spaniard, who scored a memorable goal at Stamford Bridge in 2009, would cut the ball back for Messi and the Argentine made no mistake with a finish that sent Courtois the wrong way as Chelsea effectively shot themselves in the foot.
Conte sent on Alvaro Morata, but it was too late as the £60 million-acquisition could do little except pick up a caution for protesting a refereeing decision as the match ended in a 1-1 draw.
The second leg takes place at the Nou Camp on March 14 and with the away goal in the bag, the Catalans will be backing themselves to progress despite arguably coming off second-best in the English capital.