When the draw for the Champions League last 16 was made, it felt as though Chelsea had been handed the toughest test imaginable – a tie against Atlético Madrid. The Spanish side were flying at the top of La Liga, while Chelsea were floundering in their identity crisis under Frank Lampard, and for those who analysed the football odds on all the competitions, there could only be one winner.
But a lot can change in a short time in football, and Chelsea’s revolution under Thomas Tuchel has seen the team re-establish their sense of self, with the misdirection of Lampard’s reign now a distant speck in the club’s collective rear-view mirror. The west London side are unbeaten since Tuchel took the reins, and they made light work of Atlético Madrid in the end, winning 3-0 on aggregate and looking every bit at home in the Champions League knockout stages for the first time in a while.
While the Blues demonstrated their newfound belief under Tuchel, it was a strange couple of performances from Atlético. A team that usually don’t give an inch looked toothless and unsure of themselves, as if the impenetrable armour which once encased them had been suddenly whipped away. There was none of the doggedness that has seen Diego Simeone’s side achieve so much success in the Champions League in the past. Instead, Chelsea were able to strut their stuff, and having expected a difficult time of it in the second-leg at Stamford Bridge, the hosts ended the night as comfortable 2-0 winners.
Atlético’s struggles were encapsulated in the performances of Luis Suárez, who cut a forlorn figure for most of the tie. The striker, who has enjoyed an excellent season in La Liga, looked every one of his 34 years in the two legs against Chelsea, and Antonio Rüdiger made light work of the Uruguayan’s threat. Suárez barely had a clear shot at goal throughout the 180 minutes, but credit must go to Tuchel and Chelsea for the way they stifled Atlético’s attacking advances.
The Spanish side paid the price for their lack of creativity in the first leg. Although they had plenty of the ball in the match in Bucharest, they failed to create enough goalscoring opportunities. Fans of Atlético may lament the fact that they were unable to play their home leg in their home stadium, while Chelsea were allowed to play at Stamford Bridge, but there can be no excuses for a coach as experienced as Simeone. The reality is that Tuchel out-witted him in both matches.
Chelsea will fear no-one in the last eight, but it feels like a missed opportunity for Atlético. Their season has been an excellent one so far, and they look likely to earn their second La Liga title under Simeone, but it feels as if they were due a good run in the Champions League given that they are playing with so much confidence this season.
Instead, the Spanish league leaders must go away and lick their wounds, doing everything they can to ensure that the La Liga title does not slip out of their grasp in the same manner as their Champions League hopes.