Jose Mourinho was without the services of Eden Hazard, Chelsea’s most potent weapon in attack who has an astounding 122 dribbles to his name in the Premier League. It would be fair to say that he has carried Chelsea along in an attacking sense throughout the season and in his absence, they do not have the guile to open up defenses with Oscar’s form going south.
Chelsea faced an opponent who had never lost to an English side in the comforts of their home, something which they too experienced in their trip back in 2009. Atletico had won each of their five home games in the Champions League this season. Here was a team who are leading the table in La Liga. Mourinho’s last experience playing against Atletico wasn’t a rosy one as he saw his side lose 2-1 at the Bernabeu despite having dominated the proceedings.
While there have been suggestions that Chelsea treated Atletico like a Bayern Munich or Barcelona side by choosing to defend deep, what cannot be denied is that the Diego Simeone’s side thrives on quick counter-attacks. Trying to attack an opposition who are in top form without your best player away from home isn’t the smartest idea. Any attempt to play ‘beautiful football’ or to see more of the ball would be playing into Atletico’s hands; and those who did are already out of the competition.
Gary Cahill and John Terry won most of the aerial duels and even when Garcia or Costa did get their heads to a few deliveries, on most occasions, they were off balance due to the pressure applied by the Chelsea defenders. John Obi Mikel and David Luiz were two additional defenders deployed deep in midfield in order to nullify the opposition’s attack or any attempt to provide through-balls.
They ensured that the ploy of starting Diego Ribas to provide key passes for Costa was foiled as they didn’t allow the Brazilian midfielder to create any clear-cut chances.
Ramires did well to keep track of Koke alongside Cesar Azplicueta while Luiz was at hand to ensure the Spaniard’s runs inside the left channel were tracked, given that he is the creator-in-chief for the Rojiblancos with 16 assists in the Champions League. It was the same story on the opposite flank where Willian’s energy ensured that there was never a two versus one situation against Ashley Cole who made his first start since January. Even Mark Schwarzer put in a good shift at the back as he made two decent saves after coming on for the injured Petr Cech.
When the draw was announced, there were talks as to who would see more of the ball – Atletico or Chelsea. Mourinho’s side struggle to beat teams who defend in numbers as was seen against Crystal Palace and Sunderland in the Premier League. The same cannot be said of Atletico who have the firepower upfront in Costa, David Villa and Adrian to score out of nothing.
Simeone’s side wasn’t able to break down Chelsea. Off the 25 shots they took, only four were on target, seven blocked while 14 were nowhere close. They kept thumping in crosses, 44 to be precise, with Juanfran and Koke providing most of those but to no avail as Terry, Cahill and Luiz won most of the balls.
For all the possession they had, there was just one through-ball provided in the entire game which highlights that they lack the guile and creative output to carve open the opposition.
While critics may suggest that it's advantage Atletico as they only need a score draw to progress, Simeone acknowledged that Mourinho’s plan to stifle his side worked.
“It was an intense game with both sides fighting to get through to the final. They have the advantage with this draw but whoever gets the victory will go to the final,” he mentioned.
Of course, the game was dreary and there is no denying that. However, Mourinho knew the limitations of his side and got them to play in a manner which would keep them in the tie ahead of the second leg at Stamford Bridge, where they are a tough nut to crack.
When Mourinho joined Chelsea last summer, there was talk of how he would make them play the ‘beautiful’ brand of football which owner Roman Abramovich craves. However, after a decent start, they soon failed to translate possession into goals to yield the necessary results.
It was after the Capital One Cup exit in December that Mourinho re-jigged his tactics in order to give his side a chance to fight for silverware come the end of the season.
For those wondering whether the attacking riches at Chelsea would be envied upon by some of the top clubs in Europe, Mourinho’s pragmatism and desire to win a trophy has ensured that those players wouldn’t have the freedom to completely “express themselves”, something which he claimed was the easiest thing to do.
“We are going in one direction and the right direction but it is quite frustrating. Football is about getting results and it's quite frustrating as we may have to take a step back in order to be more consistent at the back,” he mentioned.
Since then Chelsea have been miserly at the back, getting results and are still fighting for two major trophies. Whether it’s boring football or not, Mourinho got the result and will hope that his players will produce another dogged display but be more lethal on the counter at the Bridge.
Juanfran summed it up: “Chelsea is going to play different there. They have a great coach who knows how to plan every match.”
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