Mon | Apr 23, 2018

As World Cup looms, Willian claims Chelsea spotlight

Published:Thursday | February 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Chelsea's Willian, celebrates his goal against Barcelona during the Champions League round of sixteen first leg at Stamford Bridge stadium in London on Tuesday.

LONDON (AP):

Willian isn't used to receiving much acclaim. Even a place in Chelsea's starting line-up isn't certain.

And if any Chelsea player was going to outshine Lionel Messi against Barcelona, surely it was going to be Eden Hazard.

Perhaps that's why Barcelona underestimated Willian on Tuesday night, leaving him unmarked in dangerous spots so often.

While Hazard's contribution as the false nine was modest, Willian produced one of his most complete performances for Chelsea in the Champions League last-16 first leg.

It wasn't just his 11th goal of the season - the opener that rattled Barcelona in the second half - or the two occasions he thundered shots against a post. There was speed he provided down the right flank, finishing as the game's top dribbler and winning the most aerial duels among the home players.

"Willian has the potential to play this type of game in every game and I hope to see this for a long time," Chelsea manager Antonio Conte said after the 1-1 draw. "When you play in this way the coach doesn't have any doubts about you playing."

Willian seized the opportunity to make an impact against Barcelona on the right wing in a game when Chelsea had to settle for 32 per cent possession and was left frustrated when Messi equalised.

"It was one of my best performances here," Willian said. "I almost had a hat-trick. We were a bit unlucky but we must be proud of our performance because we played really well. To play against Barcelona is not easy.

"We had to stay compact, we had a plan and we did exactly as we expected," Willian said. "They had the ball and we expected to counterattack."

At 29, this is Willian's moment - especially with a World Cup in less than four months away. Brazil coach Tite could have been given a welcome selection quandary after Willian fell out of favour in the national team setup.

The talk now in Brazil is whether Tite reshapes the line-up to accommodate Willian, with Renato Augusto the fall guy. A front four of Willian, Philippe Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus and Neymar could prove intimidating in Russia, where Brazil face Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in a relatively kind group.