Toothless Chelsea take first leg edge back to London vs. Atletico

MADRID —

Judging on the evidence, yes Virginia, Jose Mourinho is destroying football.

Chelsea parked the bus against Atletico Madrid — yes, Atletico Madrid — earning a 0-0 draw in a scrappy, sloppy UEFA Champions League semifinal that failed to live up to its billing. Injury strewn and foul-ridden, the result means that next Wednesday both teams have all to play for in London. It also means that Mourinho has managed to prove a negative, something previously thought impossible.

Much of the match at the Calderon was unwatchable, a turgid operetta that saw Atletico repeatedly given time and space to drive on Chelsea’s net, only to find nine men and possibly a few folks from the stands standing in front of it. The Blues, wearing black on Tuesday night, rarely crossed the halfway line. They dithered on the ball, playing it square. They looked wholly comfortable with the idea of taking a draw back to Stamford Bridge. And, unfortunately, that’s what they did.

It was a shame for the 55,000 fans who packed the raucous, ramshackle Vicente Calderon here on the south-west side of the capital city. Aching for something to happen, the fans here were reduced to pleading for handballs and half-chances, stuff hardly fitting a European semifinal. But Mourinho has never changed his away game approach, preferring to play his cards at home and stifle when on the road. The sad part is that against an Atleti side that left huge gaps and frequently left only two defenders at home, Chelsea could have taken this match straight up. That they didn’t is as much an indictment of them as of the hard realities of continental football.

The most excitement in the first half came when Petr Cech fell after punching a corner over his own bar in a tangle with Raul Garcia in the first half. Landing badly on his shoulder — it would later be confirmed that Cech had dislocated it — the keeper immediately signaled for a replacement, the irony there being that Chelsea’s top goalkeeping prospect was standing at the other end of the field, wearing an all-blue Atletico jersey. Chelsea’s third choice keeper, Mark Schwarzer, would subsequently be kept active, but rarely busy, as Atletico were reduced to pot-shots from range.

DRAWING UP CONCLUSIONS

The second half was marginally better at Aletico, making a wise change by swapping Arda Turan for Diego Ribas, finally began to put pressure on the Chelsea backline, sending in a few teasing crosses, and hinting at an attack. But it was a case of too little, and far too late. Arda Turan had the best chance of the entire match when his header just missed Schwarzer’s near post with ten to play; prior to that only a shot from Gabi had seriously tested the keeper.

And what of Fernando Torres, making a return to the club that birthed him before sending him along to stardom on the Mersey? He was a quiet figure, as he has been for a while, condescending to throw a few shrugs and even a juke, but really doing little to convince anyone that he remains world class. Did he get any support? Of course not — but that wasn’t Mourinho’s plan. Judged solely on whether or not he could break pressure, he failed the test.

Atletico of course shares some of the blame. They are a tough side that is more physical than finesse. And yet, Diego Ribas had plenty of the ball and did little with it. Allowed to run at the Chelsea back line, he frequently tried to dink the ball over the human shield, rather than play through it. The tactic repeatedly failed and it wasn’t until late in the game that the home side looked at all as if it could string passes together and challenge here seriously.

The match is likely to be remembered more for its absences. John Terry limped off with fifteen minutes to play, apparently with a foot injury. He has been snakebit in these games, and it looks like he and Cech are now both out of the next leg. Joining them, but due to cards, will be Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel, both of whom accrued suspensions. But Atletico were hardly unscathed: Gabi also picked up a booking and his absence will be keenly felt; his creativity was one of the few bright spots in this turgid affair.

There is one bright spot to be had: Atletico and their dogged manager, Diego Simeone, will hardly be cowed by the idea of coming in to London needing to score. After all, they have done it everywhere else this year, and Chelsea are no Barcelona. Heck, they may not even be Porto. But they are canny, and grind out results.

"Two teams put out the games they thought best," added Simeone. "They defended well. We tried wide, inside, but couldn’t get through. We took a lot of risks pushing full backs on but we also had to be aware not to give them chances on the break."

Too bad it is so ugly to watch.