The haunted resignation on the face of Diego Simeone as Stefan Savic was shown an 80th minute red card summed up the confusing nature of this match, and indeed the entire tie, as Chelsea delivered a second routine victory to advance.
The soft sending off that the Montenegrin defender received for an elbow on Antonio Rudiger more or less put pay to a come-back for Atletico that never really got going, with the leaders of La Liga looking strangely short of belief throughout.
All ‘El Cholo’ could do was to stand and stare, the energy and fury that he is known for drained from him as the ghost of Atleti was being exorcised before him. The side displaying all the characteristics that took Atletico to two Champions League finals in recent memory were wearing Blue.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea had their own agitated and unforgiving coach in the dug-out. They had the mean defence which was approaching 600 minutes without conceding in this season’s competition. They had the relentless pressing game that was sapping the energy and belief from their opponents. They even had, in the form of Thiago Silva, the vocal, passionate support from the stands that Simeone cultivates for his team and Atletico usually thrive on.
Chelsea’s manager Thomas Tuchel summed it up: “Very good performance, unbelievable effort, unbelievable team effort, from the guys on the pitch, the guys on the bench, even the guys in the stands, so could really feel that we totally want it.”
When Rudiger laughed in the face of Mario Hermoso, who was presumably accusing the German of overplaying the slight elbow he had received when defending a corner, and Kurt Zouma arrived to shoo him away in the manner of a protective Grandma, it was clear that the Chelsea defence knew exactly what they were doing and felt in complete control of the situation. As Tuchel said afterwards: “It’s about reliability that they can feel safe around each other.”
It was hard not to think back to days when it was Atletico’s defence, marshalled by Diego Godin and supported by Filipe Luis and Juanfran, all now long gone, who were the ones who controlled the opposition in such a way.
The next few weeks may define Simeone’s attempts to evolve with Atletico. They are still top of La Liga, although their lead is now down to four points over the previously disaster-stricken Barcelona. A lot will rest on the form of top scorer Luis Suarez, extracted from the ruins of the Catalans at the start of this season.
He has 18 in 30 this season but with Atletico 2-0 down on aggregate and in search of goals at Stamford Bridge, Simeone brought his strangely toothless display to an end just before the hour mark, introducing Angel Correa. It was reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp withdrawing his own top scorer, Mohamed Salah, in Chelsea’s recent victory over Liverpool on another occasion where this side strangled the life out of a team unable to come to terms with the powers they appeared to have lost.
Even the frustration that Koke exhibited with a blatant trip on Mateo Kovacic after 72 minutes, or that Marcos Llorente howled into the night having been relentlessly harried by Rudiger on half-way a few minutes later, or even Savic showed initially before he started his long trudge back to the away dressing rooms in the Stamford Bridge hotel, had long since left Simeone by the end.
Much like the first leg, Chelsea out-pressed Atletico without the ball, and passed sharply to avoid the press when in possession. Andreas Christensen was ill overnight but Zouma came in and the backline still looked comfortable on the ball under pressure.
In midfield N’Golo Kante produced a display as good as any from his back-to-back Premier League title-winning campaigns, making interceptions, breaking up play, and driving forward until the last.
It was his headed clearance that set the move in motion for Hakim Ziyech’s opener on the night in the 34th minute. And when the substitute Emerson finally put away a second chance for Chelsea with his first touch in the 94th, it was Kante who regained possession at the back and fed Christian Pulisic, but who was sprinting into the area alongside the left back to draw a defender away.
Chelsea really should have had more than the two they did eventually settle for, as Atletico were obliged to come forward as much as their philosophy would allow them to in the second half, leaving space in behind for the pace of Timo Werner in particular.
The German was once again a threatening outlet without finding the net, forcing a good low save from Jan Oblak just after half time, and blasting high and wide when he should have found Kai Havertz just after the hour. The latter sequence left Tuchel face-palming on the bench.Embed from Getty Images
The link-up between the front three of Werner, Havertz and Ziyech was promising however, with the three summer signings combining for the opening goal in a way that this squad really should be producing on a more regular basis considering the attacking players they have.
Werner slid in to close down a Kieran Trippier cross on the right, which was headed away by Kante and picked up by Havertz. One German found the other as he got between two Atletico players in midfield to free Werner down the left, who then found Ziyech unmarked in the middle to finish past Oblak for his first goal at Stamford Bridge.
“It was an important one, and I had to wait a long time for it,” said the Moroccan after the game, who also had a left-footed curling shot tipped over just before the hour.Embed from Getty Images
Considering how goals have been hard to come by under Tuchel, even this slick move had an element of luck to it, as Werner’s ball across went through Savic’s legs and Ziyech’s finish went under Oblak in goal who really should have done better.
The late substitutes, Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi, were also both guilty of wasting opportunities as Chelsea attackers increasingly outnumbered the Atletico defence, but Pulisic eventually laid on the assist for the second goal.
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Tuchel had brought on two left backs in injury time as Emerson and Ben Chilwell replaced Havertz and Marcos Alonso, apparently content to close out the game. Instead, Kante foiled an Atletico attack and Pulisic had plenty of space to drive into the Atletico half. With Kante sprinting up on the right and Emerson on the left, the American laid the ball off for the latter to drill a low first-time finish inside the far post, to send the suspended Mason Mount and Jorginho leaping into the arms of Silva in the stands.
Chelsea were dominant overall and not overly troubled in defence. A pair of late Joao Felix attempts were the closest Atletico came, with one taking a sharp deflection wide of the far post in the 80th minute, and the final opportunity from inside the area parried over well by Edouard Mendy just before Emerson’s goal in injury time.
It could have been very different had the referee opted to award a penalty or a red card in the 26th minute. Cesar Azpilicueta cut out a Suarez through-ball but slightly under-hit his pass back to Mendy. The Chelsea captain then panicked as he saw Yannick Carrasco speed past him and briefly grabbed the winger who went down in the box. While the contact was not enough to bring the Belgian down, it was a clear attempt to impede him and Azpilicueta was certainly the last man, but the referee was unmoved, and the video assistant did not get involved.
Tuchel said after: “Azpi got a bit frightened because his ball was a bit too short. So, I did not see it, but I was a bit frightened on the side-line.”
That this came three minutes after Rudiger, who was the personification of energy and commitment all night, had chased down and halted a Suarez break by barging him over on the edge of the area, with the officials similarly uninterested, perhaps suggested to Atletico and Simeone that it was not going to be their night.
Despite these moments and the soft dismissal of Savic, Atleti were not looking for excuses after the game. Kieran Trippier echoed his manager’s feelings, saying: “It’s about taking your chances when you get them, and you don’t get many away at Chelsea. It’s a disappointing night for us. The best team won.”
For so long Atletico Madrid were the kind of team that nobody wanted to play against but for the majority of this tie it was all too easy for Chelsea, who now lurk in the quarter-final draw as a difficult proposition for any of the other remaining sides.
If Chelsea really have become the team the Spaniards used to be however, they might want to avoid the other side of Madrid. Cristiano Ronaldo may have been eliminated, as has Lionel Messi for that matter, but those who still haunt Atletico nightmares from those two previous finals, Sergio Ramos and Real, are still in the competition.Embed from Getty Images
Chelsea’s transformation under Tuchel has been impressive in many ways as he plots a course back to the final he lost last season with Paris Saint-Germain. But he will not want to be chasing a victorious Raphael Varane across the pitch in May, like Simeone once did.
All quotes via BT Sport
To read the report of Chelsea’s recent victory over Liverpool click here.