No parking brake needed as Chelsea, Atletico meet at Stamford Bridge
Expect the bus to be put into gear Wednesday at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea host Atletico Madrid in a critical Champions League semifinal second leg (live, FOX Sports 1, Wednesday, 2 p.m. ET) with all to play for after a grim 0-0 first leg draw. It’s an easy calculus for both sides: they must score.
Last week’s game at the Calderon was widely panned both on tactical grounds and as spectacle. Jose Mourinho reverted to form, playing a destructive game that left Atletico to take pot-shots from range instead of going at the Spaniards straight-up. It was predictable, but it proved to be curious in the end. Chelsea have proven themselves to masterful at containing teams, illustrated best in their textbook demolition of Liverpool on the weekend to throw the Barclays Premier League title chase into chaos, but it was apparent after just 15 minutes in Madrid that this Atletico team, who have swept opponents off the pitch, was eminently beatable. The home side looked jangled by nerves, and manager Digeo Simeone had made a miscalculation in starting Diego Ribas. Despite Chelsea giving him thirty yards or more of space to run at the backline, Diego never looked capable of unlocking their back line.
As a result, it was strange that Mourinho didn’t shift on the fly, bringing in the unorthodox but potent Demba Ba and trying to steal an away goal. It was telling after the match that Mourinho faced accusations from the Spanish media of lacking guts — his prickly relationship with them has not improved (to the point where he had Spanish questions translated into English for him to answer, then his responses back into Spanish, by a rather flustered young woman) but they did have a point.
But Mourinho is nothing if not pragmatic, a point he emphasized in talking up his opponents.
"They are a good side, they defend well and they score goals," he said Tuesday. "They win matches, they are in the Champions League semifinals and they are almost Spanish champions. I have respect for what they are doing."
"This is a knockout game, and maybe one goal will decide it," continued Mourinho. "It’s is a game of details. The players are more important than the manager, but I trust them and that helps me."
Chelsea will look to their fortress at home, where they have lost but one game overall during Mourinho’s tenure. They will be without the suspended John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard, but got a boost with the news that Peter Cech, John Terry, Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard all trained Tuesday. The injured quartet, with Cech’s inclusion, will surely help Chelsea’s chances come Wednesday.
Cech rarely looked like he could move freely at that practice and the expectation is that he will need surgery on the arm, handing another start to his capable backup Mark Schwarzer. The other three looked good in training, with Eto’o particularly sharp after shaking off a lingering knee problem, and their return is a coup for the side. Branislav Ivanovic, suspended for the first leg, is also expected to retake his spot meaning that Ashley Cole, who was outstanding on the weekend, may be sacrificed.
"Hazard is ready," said Mourinho, though he declined to say if the PFA’s young player of the year would start.
But even with Hazard and Eto’o back, a disturbing lack of bite surrounds this Chelsea side. It is true in Madrid that the Blues rarely tried to go for goal, dangling the badly faded Fernando Torres out front like an air freshener in a taxi cab, to about the same effect. While Andre Schurrle has often been the tonic, working well with Willian and Hazard to form a vital link between the heart of the park and the strike-force, Chelsea’s lack of an orthodox striker has made for some nervy finishes. Indeed, against PSG, it took Ba’s scrabbling a late goal across the line to send the Blues through on the away goals rule. It often feels like Chelsea are waiting for their opponents to slip up — a point not lost on Atletico.
"Chelsea expect their opponents to make mistakes, so they can take advantage," said Atletico’s Mario Suarez Tuesday. "We expect the same Chelsea as in the Calderon — although they will probably attack a little more."
Atletico, despite looking off-key last week, can damage you. Diego Costa is a striker whom many in England covet and Arda Turan looked very dangerous when he came on at the hour mark. Should that duo start, it could be a very different-looking Atletico side indeed. However, Gabi is out suspended, a damaging blow given his grace and steerage of this side.
But there is a sense around Madrid’s second team that they have a unique chance, and they do not seemed cowed at all.
"You cannot compare a team who two years ago were champions, against someone going for a first final in forty years," said Atletico manager Diego Simeone Tuesday. "This is just a football game. But the best team will win and enthusiasm and spirit are more important than history or what happened before."