Soccer

Chelsea outplays Barcelona in Rakuten Cup opener

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

A confident Chelsea overcame a depleted Barcelona side to win 2-1 on Tuesday in the opening game of the inaugural Rakuten Cup.

The friendly at Saitama Stadium was touted as the first-ever meeting between two European clubs in Japan when it was announced in March. But the announced crowd of 51,126 — around 10,000 below the former 2002 World Cup venue’s capacity — rarely raised its collective voice during play.

While newly minted Barcelona star Antoine Griezmann did make his debut in the legendary red and blue uniform, the La Liga champion’s squad list did not include Hiroki Abe, the Japanese striker who was signed to Barcelona B earlier this month and accompanied the team to Japan despite an injury.

Nor were Lionel Messi or Luis Suarez present, having earned a reprieve from the tour following this summer’s Copa America in Brazil.

Four days removed from their 1-0 loss to J. League champions Kawasaki Frontale in muggy conditions in Yokohama, Chelsea players looked far more comfortable in relatively cooler temperatures.

The Spanish side was superior the opening half of the game, leaving Chelsea mostly on the defensive. Ousmane Dembele nearly had a chance to open scoring when a pass slipped through the Chelsea back line in the 15th minute, but he was unable to get to the ball before it was smothered by Blues goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga.

Just moments later, Griezmann raised concerns when he appeared to go down injured near the centerline. Barcelona medical staff rushed to attend to his right leg, but the France international eventually stood up and was able to play through the end of the first half.

Making his first start for Chelsea, U.S. national team captain Christian Pulisic nearly earned his first goal for the Premier League club when his shot in the 23rd minute was parried by Barca netminder Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

After several minutes on defense, Barcelona found its way back into the attack with Dembele’s effort from the top of the penalty area blocked by Pedro.

But it was Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham who struck first in the 34th minute after Sergio Busquets’ miffed clearance was deflected by Jorginho. The ball ended up at the feet of the unmarked Abraham, who overcame ter Stegen’s initial save to ease the ball into the back of the net.

The two sides made a combined 11 changes at halftime, with eight players — including Griezmann and veterans Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets — coming off the pitch for Barca to Chelsea’s three.

Barcelona B midfielder Carlos Perez, who made his Spanish first-division debut in May, was eager to impress after coming on, testing Arrizabalaga on several occasions.

Chelsea eventually expanded its lead in the 81st minute through 25-year-old midfielder Ross Barkley, who hammered home with his left foot from a yard outside the penalty area.

But Ivan Rakitic gave the heavily pro-Barcelona crowd something to cheer about when his own shot from outside the box rocked the back of the net.

The Premier League side will return to Europe to continue its preparations for the upcoming season, while Barcelona will head west for its anticipated showdown with former captain Andres Iniesta’s Vissel Kobe.