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Champions League: Trying to find room between Chelsea, Atlético

Apr 29, 2014, 11:11 PM EDT

FBL-ENG-PR-CHELSEA-ASTON VILLA

After seeing Real Madrid romp through Munich, it seems a bit disingenuous to, for the second day in a row, discuss a switch in venue as if it may be decisive. Certainly the move of Champions League’s other semifinal from Madrid to Stamford Bridge could have an impact, but the Merengues’ Tuesday dismantling of the former champs showed focusing on venue has its limits. Better to consider whether the change will affect either team’s approach.

On Tuesday, we knew it wouldn’t. Bayern was going to dominate the ball, while Real Madrid was going to look to hit them on the break. On Wednesday, however, the game plans aren’t so clear. While some suspect the Chelsea we’ve seen over the last two games will again show up on Wednesday, José Mourinho’s approach against Paris Saint-Germain in the quarterfinals tells a different story. At home, chasing two goals, Chelsea opened up and beat PSG, 2-0.

The Blues had a huge incentive to change last round, an incentive that doesn’t exist on Wednesday. The teams enter tomorrow’s second leg having drawn 0-0, giving Chelsea reason to believe staying the course tactically could get them to the final. The second PSG performance still serves as a proof of concept, though. Those who don’t watch Chelsea regularly might be inclined to assume the current narrative, that they bunker all the time, is true, but this is a team that averages 55 percent possession in the Premier League, a number they duplicated in Champions League’s group stage. Getting nine behind the ball is only one of the gambits José Mourinho can play.

“Against Paris we were in a position where we had nothing to lose and no one really expecting us to turn the result around,” Mourinho explained on Tuesday. “At the moment, it is a ‘clean’ result, it is 0-0 and the chances are equal.”

The Chelsea could very well employ a different plan on Wednesday, particularly with Eden Hazard likely to return. The problem, however, is Atlético. Just as Chelsea’s personnel and natural tendencies leave them best served playing a more conservative style, so does Atleti’s, albeit in a noticeably different way. When playing against a team that wants the ball, Atlético’s high press is the most relentless (and, effective) in Europe. Under ideal circumstances, Chelsea may want to control play at home, but a match against a Diego Simeone team is never an ideal circumstance.

It is the nightmare scenario that surfaced when these teams were drawn together. Both talented yet risk averse, each capable of playing with or without the ball, what would happen to this tie if both lost the incentive to take risks?Atlético tried to score in leg one but couldn’t. They’re now in a situation where the best possibility of reward could be to lie in wait. Chelsea, on the other hand, has reason to believe being more aggressive could be rewarded, but that also plays into its opponent’s hands. What if both of these teams take a “let’s see what happens approach?”

“I respect different ways of setting out your team,” Simeone explained. “It’s about what’s the best way for a specific game or a specific opposition … There is no ‘best way’.”

The attitude hints leg two could play out like last week’s opener at the Vicente Calderón. Even if it doesn’t, the goalkeeping of Thibault Courtois and potentially Petr Cech — two of the best keepers in Europe — could keep the game at a stalemate. Though attacking threats like Hazard, Diego Costa, Óscar and Arda Turan are littered throughout the squads, the team’s combinations of talent, organization, and approach gives the defenses the upper hand. With strong back fours protected by defensive-minded midfield pairs in front, these teams look set to take this one past 120 minutes.

What could change this course? The obvious. One of these teams could have a bad day. Or one could go Real Madrid, play their best game of the season, and blow their opponents off the field. Diego Costa, averaging a goal-per-game (seven) in this year’s Champions League, could win this with one set piece conversion or finish off a perfectly served long ball. Or maybe an Atlético player will slip while on the ball, allowing Chelseato recycle its fortune fromAnfield.

“For the 90 minutes the players are more important than the manager,” Mourinho said. “I trust them a lot and that helps me to be calm.”

As much as any semifinal in recent memory, this one’s impossible to call, and as the first leg in Madrid showed, there’s little in the play, matchup, or philosophies that gives us a clue as to who’ll emerge victorious. But in a game that’s likely to be decided by one goal (probably the first), every moment will prove crucial. Onlookers my bemoan a match that lacks chances, but the scarcity of those opportunities means Wednesday’s game can be decided at any time.

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