Barcelona possess the best player in the world, but they're not Chelsea's worst potential matchup in the knockout rounds.
It's slightly unusual to be doing a preview without knowing the exact shape of the draw or who we're likely to face in each round, but I actually think it's more instructive to look at things before all the possibilities have been narrowed down. We'll have another, less nebulous preview once the draw has been sorted out tomorrow.
I'd say that Chelsea are clearly a top eight side this tournament, and quite possibly top four, with their main competition being Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and Manchester United. As always, each team has strengths and weakness that could see them knocked out by being drawn against unfavourable opposition (e.g. Barca vs. Inter), and fortune's fickle hand may well eliminate an otherwise superior side (e.g. Bayern Munich vs. United). However, nobody will quibble much with those five sides being the cream of Europe's crop.
I do not think that Chelsea warrant a place in the top two, although it's entirely feasible if they get an easy path to the finals and pick up some luck along the way. For my money, the team as it stands are somewhere between quarterfinalists and semifinalists, with the potential of winning the whole thing if they're very lucky, or going out in the second round if they have the misfortune of running into another juggernaught early. The group stages are probably a formality. Barring utter disaster, Chelsea will qualify, and probably come in first. As I just said, the real tests come at the convergence of the best teams in Europe, typically in the quarterfinals. Let's look at the non-English teams in Pot A (as well as Real Madrid) and see how they stack up against the Blues.
Inter Milan: With Jose Mourinho's flight to Real Madrid and Rafael Benitez's arrival from Liverpool as a replacement, one might be forgiven for thinking that there'd be an element of instability to the club. But this is still more or less the same team that deservedly beat both Chelsea and Barcelona on their way to the title, and Benitez has a track record of knowing what he's doing in Europe, despite not being quite the tactician that Mourinho is. In Wesley Sneidjer, Diego Milito, and Maicon, they have a host of top-class attacking options, and their defence is the best in the world right now, enabling Inter to play a frustrate/counterattack game that worked wonderfully against Chelsea and sunk Barcelona.
Matchup: I don't think we can beat them, to be honest. Our attacking players are mostly too predictable in movement - granted, it's an excellent brand of predictable, but there's very little there that can crack open the toughest nuts when Didier Drogba and the full-backs are nullified. This is exactly the sort of opponent that Joe Cole would have been useful against, instead we'll probably have to rely on Michael Essien for penetration through the middle. We'd also be better served playing a much wider midfield than usual, since the width provided by Ivanovic and Cole was denied so thoroughly by Inter in our last meeting.
Barcelona: Not as terrifying as you might think, but certainly scary opposition. They boast the best player in the world as well as the best combined attacking midfield in the world, and they're only adding to the team. Thought Barcelona were good at scoring? How about adding David Villa to the mix? Javier Mascherano is rumoured to be heading to the Nou Camp as well, a move that will assumedly help the Catalans rotate their defensive midfieder and keep Sergio Busquets fresh. Zlatan Ibrahimovich, on the other hand, seems to be on the way out.
Matchup: I strongly believe that it was Chelsea who inspired Barcelona to make the Samuel Eto'o/ Zlatan Ibrahimovich before last season, simply because the Blues outplayed Barca over the two legs of the Champions League semifinal tie using the now traditional 'how we beat Arsenal' routine, one that works by clogging up midfield and having a defence bigger than the opposition's attack. Should Chelsea meet Barcelona again, the Spanish side will dominate possession, get to the final third, and get steamrollered by the strength and size of the midfield we're likely to deploy. They're good enough to beat us on our day, but deny them quick, darting passes, and you've denied them the game, especially if they sell the one player on the team who can act as a target man.
Real Madrid: Galaticos 2.0. In the span of two years, Madrid have bought themselves Christiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso, Kaka, Sergio Canales, Mesut Ozil, and a host of other, lesser names. What remains to be done is forge them into a working team, and when that happens they'll be despicably good. What's left to say? There's no weakness at any position and we have to hope that they're still a work in progress if we match up against them. They were beaten by Lyon last year and humiliated in the Copa del Rey, but with a new coach, another ridiculous infusion of talent, and a year of working together, they're not going to be easy opponents for anyone.
Matchup: Ugh. We match up far better against Barcelona and Mourinho is liable to do what he did against us with Inter, just with better players. Chelsea will have to try to bully the Madrid attack into submission and play on the counter, but the worry is that the threat of their wide midfielders plus the ability of Xabi Alonso to distribute will hold our fullbacks in a defensive position and keeper Chelsea's shape extremely narrow. Tough match for sure, and we'd need to rely on a sturdy defence plus individual moments of brilliant to beat them. Paging Dider Drogba and Michael Essien...
Bayern Munich: A midfield and not much else, but it's some midfield. At the centre of everything is Bastian Schweinsteiger, whose move from the flanks to the centre and corresponding emergence as a combined creator/destroyer has been nothing short of extraordinary. Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben are more flashy threats, but denying Schweinsteiger the ball helps to mitigate what the wingers can do. Phillippe Lahm will look to get forwards and overload a flank, but their strike force is nothing special, and the defence is similarly unspectacular. They were not deserving finalists last season, but were helped by most of the strongest teams being on the opposite side of the draw.
Matchup: The key here is Schweinsteiger, which means that Essien will have to be dispatched as a man-marker to deny him as much time and space as possible. The attacking threat of Robben and Ribery will be difficult to contain, but it's hard to see Bayern stopping Chelsea from scoring. Patient midfield play with a lone striker will help Chelsea out a great deal, and they should focus on the centre rather than the flanks.
AC Milan: Is anyone else decidedly unimpressed with Carlo Ancelotti's old team? I know they're renowned for doing things their own way, but carrying a host of past-prime players (not to mention finding space for a wide midfielder who can do nothing but pass) with only Klaas-Jan Huntelar and Alexandre Pato as notable young talent seems a little odd. They're still a solid side but United dispatched them last year simply by being more energetic side. Milan play like a top side from 20 years ago, and I can't imagine that will be good enough now.
Matchup: Chelsea are one of the most energetic sides on the planet, and will presumably overrun the Milan midfield, especially with a healthy Michael Essien (notice a trend?). Manchester United were unable to deal with Ronaldinho in the first leg, but it's hard to imagine Branislav Ivanovic having the same issues as poor Rafael da Silva, and their midfield brutalised Milan's. I'd have Chelsea as heavy favourites, with the caveat that I don't like Pato against our centrebacks at all.
Lyon: The French side shocked Real Madrid in the second round last season, but it's hard to see a repeat on the cards. They're a solid side but apart from Hugo Lloris in goal have very little in the way of world-class talent on the roster. They also don't keep possession very well, relying on rapid counterattacks to beat more illustrious opponents. One of the least deserving Pot A teams.
Matchup: If Chelsea come up against Lyon they should be looking to slow the game down, watch for the French side retreating into their shell, and refuse to commit too many resources forward. Jon Obi Mikel will be required to play deep at all times to break up counterattacks, and one of the two fullbacks should also be in position for a rapid switch to defence at all times. Enough pressure, and Lyon will concede, and it's hard to imagine that they'll have enough quality to trouble the Chelsea defence unless there's a major issue on the transition for the Blues.