Chelsea put in an inspirational performance in their second-leg encounter against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, deservedly booking a place in the quarterfinals of UEFA’s elite club competition.
A fine counterattack, the creation of summer signings Kai Havertz and Timo Werner executed by another player to have arrived to the club ahead of this season, Hakim Ziyech, in the 34th minute, and another one finished off by substitute Emerson Palmieri in the final seconds of the match, in addition to Oliver Giroud’s strike in the first leg, proved more than enough to see off a very flat-looking Atletico side.
Chelsea better all the way
Though there were (short) periods when the visitors spent some time with the ball in the opposition half, there wasn’t an aspect of the game or an area of the pitch where they could properly match the Blues. The whole contest was completely under the control of Thomas Tuchel’s men, who having a significant advantage from the first leg, dosed their energy wisely, defended well, dominated the middle of the pitch, and always found ways to threaten Jan Oblak in the Atletico goal.
Luis Suarez and Joao Felix did very little to cause any concern to Cezar Azpilicueta, Kurt Zouma and the especially brilliant Antonio Rudiger. Out wide, Reece James and Marcos Alonso made the likes of Renan Lodi and Kieran Trippier look like lower-level opposition, but the difference between the two teams was notable the most in the middle section.
We’ve seen enough of Koke, Marcos Llorente and Saul Niguez over the last few years for anyone to sensibly doubt their quality, but they were completely outmatched by N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic, who were always helped by either Havertz or Ziyech dropping back from the front.
Werner’s runs here and there, but especially when he pulls out to the left as he so efficiently used to do for RB Leipzig, were often too much for Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez, stretching the Atletico defenders to the breaking point.
The overall impression towards the end of the match was that the Blues could have hurt the La Liga side more, had they wanted or needed to.
Tuchel does what Lampard couldn’t do
Frank Lampard was rightly praised for the success of finishing inside the Premier League top four at the end of last season, especially on the back of the departure of Eden Hazard in 2019 and the transfer ban which was imposed on the club that summer. He had to make do with the players he had, and he did it well, pushing the likes of Zouma, Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham and helping them grow.
But in 2020, expensive and renowned names were added to the team as over £200 million was spent, and while some managers would clearly see that as a good thing, it proved too much for Lampard to manage such stars. Werner and Havertz particularly seemed like failed signings for a long while, but the arrival of Tuchel at the helm in January has completely changed that. The German also seems to have revitalized Kovacic and Kante, as well as Rudiger.
Chelsea now look the same team on the pitch as they do on paper, a rare case at clubs packed with stars, and it only shows that appointing the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain boss was a stroke of brilliance from the board. He didn’t always have the best of times commanding players like Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani at the French capital, but the experience has obviously done him good.
Be that as it may, Chelsea look to be on the right track to getting back to the top of English and European football.
The Rojiblancos have never been an attacking-style team under Diego Simeone, and the Argentinian has been their head coach for a decade now. There has been success in that time of course, not least the 2014 La Liga title and two Champions League finals, but it was always done through relentless energy and fighting for every ball anywhere on the pitch, coupled with impeccable defensive discipline, that got them there rather than dazzling football with the ball. But surprisingly enough, there was far too little of that to be seen on Wednesday.
It was only to be expected that they would struggle chasing a result against a Chelsea side which hasn’t lost a game in over two months and had conceded just two goals in 12 previous matches.
Atletico needed their most talented players – Felix, Suarez, Saul, Llorente, just to name a few – to produce a spark of inspiration in order to get back into the tie after losing the first leg, but none was coming. The flame of these players was expertly extinguished by the home side.
Felix was probably the only player in red-and-white who tried to make something happened and made the Chelsea defence (and goalkeeper) work hard, but it was perhaps enough to hint that there might be a good player somewhere in the €120m Portuguese youngster, and no more.
To damage their chances further, Savic was sent off in the 82nd minute for elbowing Rudiger in the ribs during a positional fight inside the box ahead of a corner.
The decision made by referee Daniele Orsato may seem a bit harsh – there was no real intensity in the blow and Rudiger certainly made of it more than there was, likely after provoking the Montenegrin defender, but Savic should have known better than to allow himself to react that way. Orsato was close and gave the red card on his own, and those in charge of the VAR saw no reason to intervene.
The season is far from over for Atletico, and their attention now turns fully to the domestic stage, where they lead the title race ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and they will have to look at the Champions League elimination as one distraction less.
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