Over the last seven years, any team who drew Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages of the Champions League would have to deal with the unnerving prospect of a trip to the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
In front of 65,000 volatile and deafening fans, the great teams of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Liverpool would try and fail to break down Diego Simeone’s well-drilled, ruthless, pragmatic group of bullfighters. “El Cholo” would suffocate the opposition with their warrior spirit and point-blank refusal to concede goals, leaving the sides they faced with no option but to succumb to defeat and exit the tournament.
Last night, the current La Liga leaders provided a much softer version of this usually feared knockout football production.
COVID-19 travel restrictions had meant that instead of the game being played in the Spanish capital, the empty Arena Națională Stadium in Budapest would act as Atletico’s temporary fortress, and the Spanish side could not have looked further from home.
From the first whistle, Madrid looked uncomfortable and unmotivated in their temporary habitat, sitting deep within their own half with no great desire to possess the ball and take the game to Chelsea.
Whenever they did attempt to counterattack, their forward players lacked the coordination and quality that make Simeone’s cautious tactical approach so effective, failing to register a single shot on Eduard Mendy’s goal by the time the referee had blown for the end of the game.Embed from Getty Images
Simeone’s “come and break us down if you think your good enough” approach is nothing new, but even the man himself looked awkward in these new surroundings without the devoted Atletico supporters behind him.
There was little of the Argentinian’s usual touchline choreography or show stealing dramatics that we had become so accustomed to over the years. But then again, many teachers will tell you that the class clown will only put on a show if there is an audience of classmates there to support them.
For Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea, the game was now simply about waiting for and taking the opportunity that would – more than likely – present itself to a team who had been allowed 63% possession.
But despite finding themselves in many promising attacking positions, they were unable to find the decisive final ball to break down the red wall of Madrid defenders, which was made up of between six and nine players at any given time.
Only a piece of genius skill from The Blues, or a defensive mishap from Atletico, would change a game which seemed to be heading for an inevitable goalless draw.
With 22 minutes to go, as if by chance, both appeared at once.Embed from Getty Images
Marcus Alonso’s low whipped cross into the penalty area, which was miscontrolled by the on rushing Mason Mount, seemed to be the type of scenario the Madrid defenders dreamed about in their sleep, but centre-half Mario Hermoso inexplicably managed to flick the ball up in the air and back over his head.
This presented the opportunity for Oliver Giroud, who would have been given as offside if not for this deliberate play on the ball by Hermonso, to execute a wonderful bicycle kick from around 14 yards out, past the diving Jan Oblak, into the bottom corner.Embed from Getty Images
Giroud’s sixth goal in the Champions League this season – a career best – capped off a highly professional performance from Chelsea and provides a statement that Tuchel would have been keen to put out early into his reign, a statement that his side are not to be taken lightly.