Atletico Madrid 0-1 Chelsea
For almost 70 minutes of this Champions League tie, opinion may well have been divided on the performance of Atletico Madrid.
Sure, the majority of observers would have felt they were very ordinary and negative, at times playing with six men behind the ball and without a solitary effort on target.
This SBOTOP observer, on the other hand, felt Diego Simeone had got his tactics spot-on.
After all, this wasn’t a home tie as such – played in Romania because of coronavirus travel restrictions – but away goals still counted double so the importance of a clean sheet was invaluable for a side known and admired for its sometimes functional approach to the game.
For so long, the tactics appeared to be working a treat as Atletico took the sting out of game, happy to defend deep and cede possession without relinquishing many chances.
Then a veteran Frenchman and VAR intervened to create a magic moment for the Champions League 2021 highlights reel and one which puts Premier League side Chelsea in the driving seat.
Highlights of the game
In truth, it was the perfect finish from a player who is unsung and often underused but never undervalued.
Olivier Giroud’s 68th-minute bicycle kick was initially disallowed for offside until VAR took a closer look. That’s when all those watching from afar could see that not only was he onside, but admire the technique he showed to leather a brilliant overhead kick past Jan Oblak as the ball spiralled in the air.
It was a goal fit to win any game and, when the full-time whistle blew some 25 minutes later and Atletico still had not mustered an attempt on target, no-one could begrudge Thomas Tuchel and his men the victory.
Chelsea have made last-16 exits a regular occurrence in recent seasons (they last progressed beyond this stage in 2014) and from the first whistle their new coach had told his players to expect a mental and physical battle.
The first potentially psychological test came within a minute – 37 seconds to be precise – as Mason Mount brought down Joao Felix and was booked, a caution which means he will miss next month’s second leg.
Jorginho will also be suspended for the second leg after being booked for fouling the same player in the second half.
By then, Chelsea were the better side but had not created that much themselves either.
In fact, their best chance five minutes before the break saw Timo Werner spin a defender on the edge of the box and rifle in a powerful effort which Oblak expertly parried away.
As the midway point of the second half passed, all eyes remained on Atletico following their recent La Liga wobble, yet a goalless draw would hardly have been a bad result.
Then Giroud’s moment of magic arrived and Tuchel, who, led PSG to the final last season, had defied the Champions League 2021 betting odds once again.
For Simeone, who has seen many of his chief lieutenants seek pastures new – with the departures of Antoine Griezmann, Lucas Hernandez, Rodri, Filipe Luis, Diego Godin and Juanfran in the summer of 2019, followed by the sales of Thomas Partey and Alvaro Morata last summer – perhaps this was the clearest indication yet that it is La Liga and not the Champions League that remains his priority this term.
Giroud has scored six Champions League goals this season – all away from home. Only three players scored more goals than the Frenchman in European competitions since 2018/19: Robert Lewandowski, Lionel Messi and Erling Braut Haaland.
The 34-year-old is the oldest player to score for an English side in the knockout stages of the Champions League since Ryan Giggs, 37, in April 2011 for Manchester United.
Atletico have failed to keep a clean sheet in any of the last eight games. That’s their longest run of conceding under Simeone. Until tonight, Simeone had never lost a ‘home’ match as Atletico manager in the knockout stages of the Champions League (won nine, drawn four).
Chelsea are one of only three teams to win all their away games in this season’s competition, alongside Atalanta and Barcelona. This was their first away win in the knockout stages of the competition since March 2012 against Benfica (1-0).
Atletico prevailed in their only previous Champions League knockout tie with Chelsea in the 2013-14 semi-finals (3-1 on aggregate).
Luis Suarez has never failed to score or deliver an assist in a Champions League campaign – this is his eighth season in the tournament. He is so far goalless and assist-less in his five games with Atletico in 2020/21.
The next two games for Atletico will be a test of their title credentials. The stuttering leaders go to fifth-placed Villarreal on Sunday (March 28) before hosting city rivals and reigning champions Real Madrid a week later.
Chelsea are back in Premier League action themselves on Sunday and it’s a big week for them as Manchester United visit Stamford Bridge, quickly followed by a trip to reigning English champions Liverpool.
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