Conte faces balancing act between caution and unleashing Hazard when Chelsea take on Barcelona

With the tie poised at 1-1, the Premier League champions have to score to have a chance of progressing to the Uefa Champions League quarter-finals

Chelsea's Eden Hazard shoes hands with Chelsea head coach Antonio Conte after being substituted during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, March 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Chelsea manager Antonio Conte faces a conundrum of balancing his tendency for caution with the need to score to get past Barcelona in the Uefa Champions League last 16 on Wednesday.

Conte's plan to contain and counter-attack the Primera Liga leaders nearly worked to perfection in the first leg three weeks ago as Willian put the hosts in front and also hit the woodwork twice.

But one defensive error cost Conte's men dear as Barca pounced for a vital away goal when Andres Iniesta set up Lionel Messi to finally net against Chelsea at the ninth attempt and give Barca the upper hand from a 1-1 draw.

However, while Willian shone in Conte's strikerless set-up, Eden Hazard was unable to exert the influence he desires on the biggest stage in an unfamiliar centre-forward role.


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"We need to repeat the game we played at Stamford Bridge and to try to exploit the chances to score," Conte told Chelsea TV following Saturday's 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, hinting that he will opt for a similar approach at the Camp Nou.

"It's important to understand that we must be prepared to suffer, if we play with Hazard as No 9, or if we play with (Olivier) Giroud or (Alvaro) Morata as No 9 and Hazard as No 10."

Hazard certainly suffered when deployed once more in a central role as Chelsea were passed off the park by Manchester City in a 1-0 defeat nine days ago.

"When you leave the pitch you have the impression that you've ran [a lot], but that you haven't played a game of football," Hazard said as City recorded a Premier League record 902 passes and Chelsea failed to muster a single shot on goal.

Chelsea's Olivier Giroud, left, is substituted by Chelsea's Alvaro Morata during the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Crystal Palace at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Saturday, March 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

"We could have played on for three hours, and I wouldn't touch a ball. For me personally it's difficult to play a good game when you only touch the ball three times."

The root of Hazard's discontent is Conte's lack of faith in either club record singing Morata or Giroud, who was hastily recruited on the final day of the January transfer window as a more physical option.

Hazard's best displays throughout his Chelsea career have come when playing off a focal point, most notably in two Premier League title-winning seasons alongside Diego Costa.

A fallout with Conte meant Costa was hastily dispatched by the Italian at the end of last season despite playing a huge role in delivering the title.

Morata was bought to replace his Spain international teammate and initially struck up an excellent relationship with Hazard.

epa06579749 Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne (L) in action with Chelsea’s Eden Hazard (R) during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Chelsea FC held at Etihad stadium, Manchester, Britain,  04 March 2018.  EPA/PETER POWELL EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 75 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

However, an alarming dip in form allied to injury problems has seen Morata make just one start in two months and fail to score since December 26. Giroud has made just three starts and scored one goal since crossing London to join from Arsenal.

On the eve of the first leg, Hazard welcomed comparisons to five-time Ballon d'Or winners Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, but admitted he had to produce far more on a consistent basis in the Champions League to justify such comparisons.

"If you want to be one of the best, you have to play well in the big games," said the Belgian, whose contract expires in 2020.

But after Conte claimed playing in a more open style against City and Barcelona would be "stupid" given their superior quality, Hazard may be forgiven for wondering if he can realise his ambitions at Stamford Bridge should Chelsea fail to make the quarter-finals for a fourth straight season.