LONDON (Reuters) - Barcelona’s Lionel Messi had to wait 12 years and endure a goal drought of eight games against Chelsea but he finally broke his duck in Tuesday’s 1-1 Champions League last 16, first leg draw.
The last time Barca played Chelsea, in a semi-final in 2012, Messi whacked a penalty against the bar which allowed the London side to claw their way back to an unlikely win at the Camp Nou.
The diminutive Argentine atoned on Tuesday, giving Barcelona a precious away goal as he strode on to a pass from Andres Iniesta in the 75th minute and calmly side-footed the ball home to cancel out Willian’s opener for Chelsea 13 minutes earlier.
“For us he is the best player in the world. He’s not just any player,” Barca midfielder Ivan Rakitic said of Messi, who has now scored 98 Champions League goals compared to his Real Madrid rival Ronaldo’s 116 in the competition.
“We have a lot of faith in him. We know that what we need to do is free him up as much as possible. And it’s not easy for him, he gets so little space, it’s hard for him.”
Tuesday’s Champions League encounter was the ninth time that Messi had faced Chelsea, a run of games stretching back to 2006 when the sides met in the competition’s group stages.
That kicked off a series of often epic encounters between the teams in the following six years.
Yet even during the 2011/12 season, when Messi scored 73 goals for Barcelona, he failed to find the net in the two games he played against the Londoners.
Despite his record against Chelsea, and the approach of his 31st birthday in June, he looked like Barcelona’s most likely route to goal on Tuesday, finding space in Chelsea’s otherwise disciplined defence and linking up dangerously with Iniesta on several occasions before the pair worked the equaliser.
“We see that so often from him, either with his scoring or his passing for goals,” Barca defender Samuel Umtiti told reporters. “In the big matches he makes his mark.”
Writing by William Schomberg; editing by Ken Ferris