Tuesday night is another big European night in the history of Chelsea Football Club, as the Blues once more advance to the semifinal round of the Champions League. This time, a trip to the Vicente Calderón is in order, as Chelsea meet a familiar foe from the last few years in Atlético Madrid.
It was just last season that Chelsea faced the then Europa League holders in the UEFA Super Cup, falling 4-1 to Atlético via a first-half hat trick from Falcao. Previously, the two met in the group stages of the 2009-2010 Champions League where the Blues downed the Spanish club 4-0 and drew 2-2 in a match that alerted clubs to the abilities of Sergio Aguero and again confirmed the talismanic status of Didier Drogba.
This time, the stakes are a bit higher, with a place in the Final in Lisbon at stake and two legs to decide the better team.
Diego Simeone’s men have surprised many an opponent this season in both La Liga and the Champions League by competing at such a high level with a squad that lacks the numbers of some of the other powerhouses of the two competitions. After the loss of Falcao to Monaco, many questioned how Atlético would carry on this season, after placing third in La Liga last season and returning to the Champions League after a relatively disappointing showing the Europa League last year. That question has been answered, with Diego Costa slotting in for Falcao almost seamlessly, and Simeone taking the team to the top of La Liga at this stage in the season.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that this draw was the best one Chelsea could get for various reasons, and I do believe that it’s a very tricky proposition to play Atlético. This is a team that has conceded just 2 goals to Barcelona this year and has a draw and a win over Real Madrid in the league, suffering defeats to their local rivals in just the Copa del Rey. Simeone’s men are a tough out, and this first leg will be crucial.
Of the two possible opponents, Atlético are the most unpredictable and adaptable.
On a personal level, I’m a big fan of Diego Simeone and what he’s done as a manager. I think that he’s the second-most flexible manager left in this competition, only behind Jose Mourinho. As a player, he was a hard-nosed , tough-tackler, and his Atlético side mirrors that aspect of his personality. They are a team that likes to press high up the pitch to win the ball, like to control it, as most Spanish sides do, but they’re also not afraid to play a physical game if required, and probably are the most robust of the sides in La Liga. For me, that allows his side to adapt to any playing style they come up against and makes it very difficult to really plan against them because he is very good at reacting to changes, especially over two legs.
For instance, against Real Madrid in the league, they took advantage of Real’s tendency to get frustrated in matches that are a bit niggly, with lots of little fouls and a bit of an edginess to their opponents’ play. It worked against them, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were both ineffective and frustrated in their lack of involvement and Pepe and Sergio Ramos became ticking time bombs of anger and aggression, leading to Simeone’s men gaining 4 points from those matches.
Then against Barcelona this season, they’ve taken the normal approach of sitting back and absorbing pressure with organisation and looking to counter in their first 4 matchups. However, in the second leg of their Champions League tie at home, Simeone changed things and started pressing Barcelona’s centre backs so that they couldn’t play out from the back, and for the first 15 minutes, Barcelona couldn’t live with them and could have been down 3-0 by virtue of mistakes in trying to play out.
Against Chelsea, I’m not entirely sure what he’ll do because he is such a reactive manager and because his preferred method of play is not that dissimilar to that of Jose Mourinho in that he wants the opposition to play overaggressive in order for his teams to exploit the spaces that they leave in doing so.
4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 4-3-3 — Atlético have many different ways to approach this match.
This is where Simeone’s team becomes unpredictable. Standard to their setup is Diego Godin and Miranda in the center of defence, Filipe Luis and Juanfran as the fullbacks, and Gabi as the controlling midfielder. Where the variations come in is when he selects his more attacking 5 players and how exactly he wants to deploy them. He has a wealth of decisions and variations that he can go for, as Raul Garcia and Koke are able to play wider, attacking midfield positions giving him a box-shape in midfield, or he can bring one of the two, or both, back to a more standard central midfield position and play a 3 in the center with Gabi.
He can go for Arda Turan or Cristian Rodriguez as out-and-out wingers to widen the play without losing creativity allowing him to play with a more attacking wide player complemented by either Garcia or Koke being a more reserved wide player. He can bring in Diego to play as a pure number 10 behind a striker if creativity is needed. He can also partner two strikers up front with David Villa and Diego Costa. Also, he’s got a versatile striker/attacker with pace in Adrian.
The point is that all of the above can play multiple different roles, allowing Simeone to reactively make changes without having to make substitutions. All of the above players also have that bit of a rough side to them and are willing to press and win the ball aggressively. And all of the above players are also very good on the counter.
All that being said, does that sound a bit familiar?
The one weakness for Atlético may be their fullbacks and their defensive abilities.
If there is one problem that Atlético have, it’s that Filipe Luis and Juanfran are there to provide width, especially when Simeone opts to play Garcia, Gabi, and Koke behind two strikers. They are both very good attacking fullbacks, but their ability to track back is a bit questionable, which is perhaps why their pressing game is so necessary. Normally, their deficiency in defending is nullified by the ability of Gabi to read the game and close down the space, and aided by the strength of Miranda and Godin in dealing with crosses.
However, Madrid did cause them some problems when Ronaldo was able to find the ball and run at the back line. Because they tend to play so narrow, when they create their width, it leaves space behind that you can exploit. The space is not behind the defenders, but rather one that a good diagonal ball can exploit if played correctly. They don’t get caught out often, but if you can win the ball in the transitions, you can counter them quickly. For me, that’s why I think Andre Schuerrle must play in this match, perhaps for Eden Hazard if he’s still injured, or for Oscar if Hazard’s fit. The one player that Chelsea have that will make runs in behind the striker from the wide areas is Schuerrle, and when counterattacking, he’s caused problems. He did so against PSG, and against an Atlético side that wants to play controlled possession with space on the flanks, he may be devastating to them.
Fernando Torres returns to Madrid — maybe.
The most interesting thing to come out of the Jose Mourinho press conference was his spiky attitude and his influence on his players. Everyone knows how Mourinho can be when he doesn’t want to answer questions, but it translated to David Luiz as well. If that’s not interesting enough, the praise of Fernando Torres after declaring that Samuel Eto’o didn’t travel was even more interesting.
The Spaniard is travelling back to the stadium where he earned the nickname El Niño and the club who he’s an unabashed supporter of. Without Eto’o, Torres and Demba Ba are the only striker options available, and given his form, it would be reasonable if Mourinho felt the moment may get to Torres and leave him out. Whether this is a ploy for Mourinho to say one thing but mean another isn’t out of the question, it does sound as if he may be hoping that the familiar surroundings of Madrid may rouse Torres into a performance that he has rarely shown in his Chelsea career. He may also be looking at the fact that Torres has scored most of his goals in European competition in the past two years and the fact that he is better at link-up play than Ba is, as it pertains to counterattacking play.
Regardless, with Eto’o out, it may once again be Torres time to prove that he can still be an effective player on the European stage, and it may either keep him at Stamford Bridge, or may be his option of auditioning for his transfer at the end of the season.