And so the run ends with a 3-1 loss. No complaints here -- Chelsea hadn't lost a European knockout tie for three years*, and that run was bound to end at some point, and it just so happened to be now. Atletico Madrid are, without a doubt, a better team than us at the moment, especially with one of our key midfielders cup-tied, and they gave us a roasting as soon as we were forced to push forward.
*Eleven knockout ties in a row is pretty fantastic any way you slice it.
In other words, they maximised their strengths and hit our weaknesses, and they are deserving Champions League finalists.
The strange thing is that the game was actually under control for the first 44 minutes. Apart from an early scare in which a wayward cross managed to beat Mark Schwarzer and do scary things to our crossbar, Chelsea were in control of the game, pushing high up the pitch and generally pinning Atleti back. In due course we were rewarded with what could and should have been a decisive goal.
Willian squirmed past a pair of defenders to reach the byline, and although he was brought down in so doing, Cesar Azpilicueta (fielded as an attacking midfielder to start the game) managed to keep the moment going, sweeping onto the ball before playing a cutback for Fernando Torres. The striker's first-time shot deflected off Miranda, past Thibaut Courtois and into the back of the net.
At 1-0, the game should have been easy. Atleti do not like being forced to attack, and Chelsea are at their most comfortable under the cosh. But the defence seemed insistent on making a series of unforced errors. Gary Cahill's had a fantastic season, but he had huge problems distributing the ball today, leaving to a series of Atletico attacks we simply shouldn't have had to face. And then came the hammer blow.
It's tempting to blame Eden Hazard, whose rustiness showed when he allowed Juanfran to slip in behind him. But everyone could have done better on that play -- John Terry missed it, Ashley Cole couldn't figure out whether to clear it or let it go, and Schwarzer sat around not doing much of anything. Adrián swept in to give the visitors the lead on away goals.
Jose Mourinho put it in his press conference that the game came down to one minute in the second half, when Courtois made an excellent save off the head of John Terry and substitute Samuel Eto'o conceded a penalty on a corner. But I disagree with him. The game came down to not being in a position where we had to go after Atletico, because they're a side that will eat you if you try to force the match. The Eto'o substitution for Cole, in particular, was a desperate gamble, one that compromised team shape in favour of more attacking firepower.
And then the penalty. This is the second Champions League semifinal in a row in which a veteran striker has conceded a rash penalty, but this time it was Diego Costa on the spot rather than Lionel Messi, and after a weird sequence in which the ball kept falling off the spot, the striker sent Schwarzer the wrong way to give Atletico a lead they'd never give up.
How different would the match be if David Luiz hit the back of the net rather than the post with a header shortly thereafter? It'd have been more fun, but ultimately one suspects Atletico were always going to devour us in the second half, taking advantage of the space we had to give them behind the lines to score again. That's what happened in the 72nd minute, when a cross was headed off the post for Arda Turan to sweep in.
Down 3-1 with less than 20 minutes to play, Chelsea were done and everyone knew it (except maybe Courtois, whose save after Hazard tricked his way through defence in injury time was little short of phenomenal). But it was difficult to be upset. Atletico are a complete, smart team, coached by an incredible manager, and I'm cheering for them in the final. I'm also proud of this team -- they've grown a lot since the embarrassment of the 2012/13 group stages, and I can only imagine we'll be even better next year.
All but two teams in Europe will be watching the match in Lisbon from home. That we're one of them is no embarrassment; that we came near reaching the final for the second time in three years is an achievement of which we can be proud. Let's end the year on a high and reload for next time.
Transition time is over.