Chelsea were already guaranteed a spot in the knockout rounds of the Champions League, but needed a win against Atlético Madrid on Tuesday to ensure first place in Group C and a more advantageous draw for the Round of 16. Alas, the interventions of goalkeeper Jan Oblak, Chelsea's own poor finishing, and Roma’s 1-0 win over Qarabag meant that the Blues had to settle for a 1-1 draw and second place.
Matching most fans’ pre-match expectations, Antonio Conte opted for a very strong line-up to start the match, with only Davide Zappacosta’s surprising turn at left wing-back (to rest Marcos Alonso at long last) out of the norm. Captain Gary Cahill and Tiemoué Bakayoko returned to the fold as well in the now standard 3-5-2 formation.
For the visitors, Diego Simeone went with his usual 4-4-2 to keep things compact and tidy on and off the ball. He included two former Blues in the lineup: left-back Filipe Luis and striker Fernando Torres, who received a very warm welcome (and final applause) from the home support.
Other than the 2-1 home defeat to Chelsea, Simeone’s Atlético have not lost a single game this season in any competition.
They’ve accomplished that largely through defensive fortitude, compact lines, and conservative tactics, and for most the first-half, their powers to bore and cancel out the opposition were in full effect. Chelsea were allowed very little space, whether in possession or when trying to play out from the back. Atlético’s possession however was just about as unthreatening, and like Chelsea’s, consisted of a lot passing between themselves at the back.
A couple hopeful efforts each from Álvaro Morata and Davide Zappacosta were all Chelsea had to show for their first half efforts. Atlético fared even worse, and their best moment was a Griezmann free kick hit right down the middle needing a simple catch from Courtois.
Chelsea threatened to unlock the borefest as the half wore on, but real change, and action, would have to wait until the second half.
Atlético needed a win to advance to the knockout rounds of this season’s Champions League. Accordingly, they started the second half with renewed intensity and impetus, opening up their formation and taking more risks. And early shot from Griezmann signaled their intentions, before Filipe Luis hit the post and Koke’s follow-up was saved.
Three minutes later Chelsea weren’t so lucky as a complete defensive breakdown on a corner gifted the visitors not just one, but two wide open headers. Torres, allowed to run free, flicked on the ball at the near post; Saúl, allowed to run even freer, headed the ball in at the far. Atlétio had just three shots on target the whole game, but this was far too easy.
Unfortunately for Atlético, Roma had taken the lead against Qarabag at almost the same exact time, meaning that regardless of what happened at Stamford Bridge, the red-and-whites were doomed to the Europa League. Still, Simeone treated the situation with all the attention it deserved, introducing Yannick Carrasco for Torres in the wake of their opening goal to revert Atléti back to a more solid and compact look.
Conte meanwhile decided he had seen enough of Bakayoko’s latest foibles, bringing on jack of all trades Pedro to play a sort of hybrid midfielder-forward in what was increasingly looking like a 3-4-3 system. Within just a few minutes Pedro had won a corner and had a shot blocked. Willian arrived not long after for the ineffective (and out of position) Zappacosta, with Pedro dropping to wing-back and Chelsea going full 3-4-3. Momentum had clearly shifted in Chelsea’s favor with the substitutions, and a goal followed without much further ado. Officially, it was recorded as an own goal, but the credit should go to Eden Hazard — who else!?
Atlético had two chances to clear Cesc Fàbregas’s corner — first on the corner itself, then on the second ball in — but all they managed to do was find Eden Hazard in space at the top of the box. The in-form magician took on a couple players, jinked and juked and fire a low cross across the box. Low crosses tend to cause havoc and this one was no different, finding the legs of Stefan Savić who deflected the ball into the back of his own net.
There were a little over 15 minutes to go; game on!
Chelsea were in the ascendancy and should have had a second not a minute later when Cesc lead the break and found Morata in acres of space, but Chelsea’s leading scorer was thwarted by the excellent Oblak with one of his seven saves. A few minutes later Oblak was just a bystander as it was Willian’s turn to be in acres of space after Hazard’s cutback only to fire high, wide, and not so handsome. Willian blamed the turf for a bobble, but it was a situation where it was far harder to miss than to hit the target.
Simeone desperately pushed for a second goal in case of a miracle by Qarabag, introducing Ángel Correa and Luciano Vietto for Gabi and José Giménez, respectively, but neither a goal nor a miracle were forthcoming. A cross fired across Courtois’s goal failed to find a boot for the visitors, while Batshuayi, back from injury and on late for Morata, missed the far post by inches at the other end as he almost repeated his heroics from the reverse fixtures between these two sides earlier this season.
In the end, the teams settled for a point each, which wasn’t all that helpful for either. Chelsea now enter Friday’s draw for the Last 16 as a second seed (Roma as a first seed), while Atlético drop into the Europa League.
Another game then where Chelsea were let down by some poor finishing (and a couple excellent saves), though the primary mission of making the knockout rounds has been accomplished. Who’s ready for PSG in the Round of 16??
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