This may be the second game of Chelsea’s return campaign to the Champions League, but Wednesday’s away match against Atlético Madrid will be the first one that will like an actual Champions League match (sorry, Qarabag).
Atlético are an undoubted powerhouse and the only team to manage spit in the soup of the Real Madrid-Barcelona duopoly in the last 13 seasons. Despite their transfer ban — or perhaps precisely because of it — they remain a very strong and very cohesive team with (yet another) world class young goalkeeper (De Gea to Courtois to now Oblak), another unheralded yet solid defensive unit (when did Stefan Savić become good??), just the right amount of veteran leadership (Gabi, Godín, Juanfran), and of course plenty of exciting attacking talent, led by Antoine Griezmann, even if the goal totals don’t always reflects that.
Antonio Conte is understandably cautious.
"We have to face a tough game against a team that in the last years played always this competition with good performance and to arrive at the final twice. Last season they were beaten by Real Madrid [in the semi-finals]."
"We have to prepare very well for this type of game. For sure it will be a really tough game for us, but we must be excited because last season we didn't play this competition. Now we are playing and we have to try to do our best."
Chelsea’s task would be made a bit easier if Eden Hazard was completely match fit and in form, but Conte remains very cautious with his treatment of Chelsea’s biggest star, and understandably so. The season is very long and there’s no reason to rush him at this stage.
"I think now Eden is improving a lot and for sure he's in contention for Atletico Madrid. After a bad injury and surgery you need time. He's almost ready to play but if I make this decision it will be because I'm comfortable with it."
"I think we are managing him very well. Other players are also very important for us and now it's important to be sure he's ready."
-Antonio Conte; Source: Chelsea FC
Whether Hazard plays from the start or just comes off the bench, Chelsea’s other player will have to contribute to get a good result in Madrid. Whether that means Morata continuing his good form and scoring his first career goal against them (0 in 6 games, with Real and Juve), Pedro continuing his penchant for big goals by scoring his first career goal against them (0 in 16 games, all with Barca), or others like Willian (0 in 2 games) or Fàbregas (0 in 9 games) stepping up.
As much as any match up to this point, this game should prove a good litmus test to see where Chelsea stand at the moment among European footballing powers. It’s just one game of course, so it won’t be a definitive answer, but if Chelsea can get a draw at least, we should be pretty happy with it.