Chelsea strength of character faces toughest test yet vs. Barcelona
With a much-needed positive vibe restored in the Chelsea camp following successive home victories at Stamford Bridge over bottom of the table West Brom in the Premier League and Championship strugglers Hull City in the FA Cup, the big question now is do the Blues have the ability, and perhaps more importantly the strength of character, to overcome infinitely better opponents?
The answer is close to hand. In their next three games, Chelsea host Barcelona in the Champions League on Tuesday and then face top-flight away games with Manchester United and Manchester City. Against these opponents there will be no hiding place for Blues boss Antonio Conte and his players should things start to go awry.
Chelsea supporters, mindful of the recent capitulations against Bournemouth and Watford in the league and the lame Carabao Cup semifinal exit to Arsenal, are rightfully concerned that the lack of fight the team displayed when going behind in that trio of fixtures is still lurking in the shadows of the dressing room.
Conte has already spoken about his side having to find "the perfect game" in the Barca match if they are to give themselves a chance. Ernesto Valverde's team are bristling with attacking talent and have one of the most potent goal scorers in world football in Lionel Messi.
Famously, Messi has faced Chelsea eight times and has yet to score against the Blues, but the Argentine forward has 30 goals already this season and will have a strong motivation to add to that tally and break his duck at the Bridge. Shackling Messi and strike partner Luis Suarez will be pivotal to Chelsea's chances, as will the requirement for Eden Hazard to get in behind the Barca defence and create opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Defensively, Conte has some big calls to make when it comes to picking his starting XI. Although still only 21, the maturity displayed by centre-back Andreas Christensen has been admirable. Chelsea's propensity not to concede also improves markedly when the Denmark international is on the pitch and he will not be fazed by facing Messi and Suarez.
Captain Gary Cahill will be desperate to feature somewhere in Conte's defence, but with Cesar Azpilicueta a shoo-in to complete the back line, there are concerns that Cahill might be targeted as the weak link by Barca should he feature. At 24, Antonio Rudiger is a much more mobile and physically effective player than 32-year-old Cahill and for all the England man's big-game experience, the Germany international looks far better equipped to deal with matters at hand.
If Cahill is benched, the responsibility for skippering Chelsea will be Azpilicueta's and it will be down to the 28-year old to make sure the Blues are collectively able to keep their heads up if they fall behind -- not only against Barca but also in the games against Man United and Man City that follow.
While he was Chelsea manager, current United boss Jose Mourinho, speaking ahead of a Champions League tie with Galatasaray, famously said a team with 11 Azpilicuetas probably could win the competition. The Portuguese qualified his statement by waxing lyrical about Azpi's character and winning personality, and for once, every single Chelsea supporter agreed.
Unfortunately for Conte, just like Mourinho before him, he has just one Azpilicueta, and he must hope that the spirit the Spain international plays with in every game is embraced by his teammates. Blues fans everywhere have a shared concern that the Chelsea side lack the defiant "do-or-die" characters of the not too distant past.
In their prime, Petr Cech, Ashley Cole, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba ... leaders one and all, never let their heads drop when the going got tough. Cahill was once among their number but this season, perhaps like Ivanovic in his final months at the Bridge, he appears to have lost his mojo.
The eternal beauty of Chelsea for their supporters is that more often than not where there's life there's hope and there will be plenty of life in the fans gathered at the Bridge to cheer on the Blues against Barca.
Stout defending, a shimmering piece of beauty from Hazard and maybe a net-bursting free kick from Marcos Alonso, and Conte's side might just give themselves a chance in this tie. Anything else, particularly if it involves Messi and/or Suarez scoring early, doesn't bare thinking about.
Mark Worrall is one of ESPN FC's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter: @gate17marco