As World Cup looms, Willian claims Chelsea spotlight

Chelsea's Willian celebrates scoring the opening goal during a Champions League round of sixteen first leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Chelsea's Willian, left, scores his side's first goal of the game during the during a Champions League round of sixteen first leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Adam Davy/PA via AP)
Chelsea's Willian celebrates after scoring the opening goal of his team during the Champions League, round of 16, first-leg soccer match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge stadium, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Chelsea's Willian, celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the Champions League round of sixteen first leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (Adam Davy/PA via AP)
Chelsea's Willian, left, controls the ball as Barcelona's Sergio Busquets tries to stop him during the Champions League, round of 16, first-leg soccer match between Chelsea and Barcelona at Stamford Bridge stadium, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON — Willian isn't used to receiving much acclaim. Even a place in Chelsea's starting lineup 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."

There have been doubts, though. Many. The decision to play without a recognized striker provided an opening for Willian, who only played the last ten minutes of Chelsea's last Premier League game against West Bromwich Albion.

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

"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."

The strategy was well executed by Conte in the competition the Italian coach might have to win to stay in the job into next season.

"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."

The first leg confounded the status of the teams: Barcelona is the unbeaten Spanish leader, while Chelsea has tumbled to fourth in the Premier League.

After all the effort Chelsea took to bring Willian to Stamford Bridge, perhaps they should be valuing the winger's abilities more.

The Brazilian was signed from under the noses of Tottenham in 2013 for 32 million pounds. The north London club thought it had stolen a march on its rival — a medical had been completed — before the transfer from Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala was hijacked by Chelsea's Russian owner, Roman Abramovich.

That was in early in Jose Mourinho's second spell in charge, and Willian is on his third Chelsea manager in almost five years. Such instability in the dugout leads to talent being cast aside in west London — often to emerge stronger elsewhere. Just look at two players who found their way back to the Premier League: Mohamed Salah at Liverpool and Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City.

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 favor in the national team setup.

The talk now in Brazil is whether Tite reshapes the lineup 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 faces Switzerland, Costa Rica and Serbia in a relatively kind group.

Pundits in Brazil were naturally raving during the broadcast of Tuesday's game.

"Willian can say he played better than Messi," said Junior, who played at the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, on Globo. "Not many players can say that, and I am sure Tite is watching now."

More immediately, Willian needs to retain the faith of Conte.

___

Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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