Welcome back to the Champions League, where Chelsea take on familiar foes — and, in some respects given all the business we’ve done with each other over the past decade not to mention all the eyelash-batting at Diego Simeone during that time, almost familial foes, too.
That said, Atléti have shed every last one of their ex-Chelsea lot, at least temporarily, for this season. That they are leading La Liga comfortably is probably just a coincidence ... or, should I say, were leading it comfortably. A recent run of poor results, just one win in four including a home defeat on Saturday to whatever a Levante is, has allowed Real Madrid to close the gap to just three points, albeit having played one more game.
Then again, seeing Chelsea on the schedule must be a comforting sight for any struggling team as of late, given our propensity and generosity in allowing our opponents to use us as a means of getting back on track. Though the same result as in Saturday’s fatalistic 1-1 draw against Southampton wouldn’t be the worst thing here.
Date / Time: Tuesday, February 23, 2021, 20.00 GMT; 3pm EST; 1:30am IST (next day)
Venue: Arena Națională, Bucharest, Romania — Atléti were forced to move their home leg to a neutral venue in a foreign country due to Spain’s COVID-19 restrictions on travelers from the UK. Atléti, featuring Courtois, Filipe Luís, and Falcao, won the 2012 Europa League final in this very stadium.
Referee: Felix Brych (on pitch); Marco Fritz (VAR) — this will be the fifth Chelsea match for the experienced Dr. Brych, having already witnessed two of Chelsea’s greatest nights in Europe, the 1-0 win over Barcelona and especially the 4-1 win over Napoli, both in the 2011-12 knockout rounds.
On TV: BT Sport 2 (UK); CBS Sports Network, UniMás, TUDN (USA); Sony TEN 2 (India); SuperSport Máximo 1, Canal+ Sport 3 (NGA); elsewhere
Streaming: BT Sport Live (UK); CBS All Access, Univision Now, TUDNxtra (USA); Sony LIV (India); DStv Now (NGA) — I scarcely believe it, but CBS are finally putting some games on actual (cable) TV. I KNOW! Only took one pandemic. If you don’t have CBS-SN, and you don’t want to subscribe to CBS’s streaming service because you’re not over 60 and/or don’t like Star Trek (and are disappointed by how bad The Stand is), you can also watch through Fubo TV, for which we have an affiliate link. CBS do offer a free trial for All Access, and they will be carrying the Champions League for the next several years, so you might as well get used to them. We (well, SB Nation) also have a CBS-AA affiliate link, if you’re so inclined to stop drinking illegal streams.
Atlético Madrid team news: It was all going quite swimmingly for new-look Atléti this season before the recent bump in the road, with Diego Simeone notably able to adapt and retool his team after a decade in charge — often featuring a three-man defense, even.
While still exuding classic Cholismo in many respects, this season’s slightly more expansive style has seen Atléti top the charts not only in (fewest) goals conceded but also (most) goals scored — though they’ve dropped to second in the latter category behind Barcelona in the last few weeks. Having seemingly found the proper balance of stingy defending and killer attacking, it’s no wonder that Simeone’s still on pace for his second La Liga title as manager (he also won one as a player).
Things have been a bit tougher in Europe, with just two wins in their six group games, both against RB Salzburg, though just one loss at the same time, to runaway group winners Bayern Munich.
With the world’s best goalkeeper, Jan Oblak between the sticks, a still hungry (and free-scoring) Luis Suárez up top, a solid core formed by likes of Koke, Stefan Savić, and José Giménez, plus tireless work from Marcos Llorente and Saúl, not to mention plenty of exciting skill from young João Félix, back-in-form Thomas Lemar, and a returning Yannick Carrasco, Atléti have weapons aplenty at either end of the pitch. Over January, they’ve also added striker Moussa Dembélé, just to increase their firepower.
Atléti had been dealing with a COVID outbreak, but they’ve largely recovered from all that. Héctor Herrera remains in the protocol and did not travel with the team. The aforementioned Carrasco and Giménez are injured, as is defender Šime Vrsaljko. Another notable absence is former Spurs full back Kieran “Lump On” Trippier, who’s serving a suspension for gambling-adjacent nonsense (that 10-week global ban expires next week).
View from the enemy: Into The Calderón
Chelsea team news: Thiago Silva is the only player of the regular 24-man squad to have not traveled. He’s been back in training, but evidently not quite fully recovered from his thigh injury. Recent absentees Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz are fit again, though are among those struggling a bit for form.
Lapse of concentration against Southampton aside, Tuchel’s Blues have been very stingy in defense, but that’s come at the price of less than ideal attacking efficiency and chance creation. Defense does win championships however, as they say; we only have to look to 2012, even if that’s getting a bit too small and distant for our liking in the rearview mirror.
In fact, Chelsea have not progressed beyond the Champions League Round of 16 since 2014. If we are to break that habit this year, we’re going to have to be near-perfect.
Previously: This will be our eighth meeting ever — all since 2009. Chelsea have only lost twice in the previous seven occasions, but both of those were momentous defeats: 4-1 in the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, and 3-1 at home with the 2014 final on the line. The last time we played was in the 2017-18 group stage, when a home 1-1 draw (with yours truly in attendance because world travel was a thing back then) followed a fantastic 2-1 win in the first ever European match at the Wanda Metropolitano. Incidentally, Chelsea also played a 3-5-2 formation that day, with a very familiar-looking defense.