Knockout football in Europe is not for the faint-hearted, and many Chelsea hearts will have dropped when Atletico Madrid’s name was read.
There is no easy draw in the Champions League. All the teams left in the hat are there on merit, having navigated through their respective groups and into the perilous stages of knockout football. Yet, every fan has that one anomaly side who they would much rather face than say—at least for Chelsea fans—an Atletico Madrid.
Borussia Monchengladbach, Lazio or Atalanta would have been far more favourable in terms of their European pedigree, but instead, Chelsea’s fate lies on the doorstep of the Spanish giants. Currently joint top of La Liga with two games in hand, Diego Simeone has rediscovered the formula in making Atletico an impenetrable force once again.
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The competition will continue next February, with the Blues traveling to the Wanda Metropolitano, playing the reverse leg at Stamford Bridge the following month. Pitting the pair against one another was a complete lottery, however, it feels as though Chelsea’s destiny has been scripted over the past few seasons.
During last year’s edition, eventual winners Bayern Munich came to London like a Bavarian battering ram by scoring three without reply, inducing further damage at the Allianz to stride through 7-1 on aggregate. Pursing the ‘B’ theme, Barcelona was the 2017/18 opponent, a battle the Blues could not overcome, Lionel Messi and Co. conjuring up a 4-1 aggregate scoreline.
For consecutive campaigns before that, Paris Saint-Germain awaited Chelsea in the Round of 16, twice prevailing as victors, despite completing a set of draws that sent the Parisians through on away goals. The rest of the decade has been made up of trips to Galatasaray, Copenhagen—whom the Blues failed to beat at the Bridge—and the stunning turnaround against Napoli that set in motion the historic success of 2012. Include the failure to progress from the group stages in 2012/13, Chelsea has not had an easy ride of late.
Frank Lampard has featured on so many occasions at this chapter of the tournament and will know full well the pitfalls of a two-legged tie, especially when a wily manager like Simeone is concerned. Atletico has conceded just four goals in the league, two of those coming last weekend in the defeat to Real Madrid. It will come as no surprise that this will be a marathon for the Blues—not a sprint.
On a plus, the Blues’ own defense record has improved considerably, owed greatly to the additions at the back. These additions include Thiago Silva, a recent finalist with PSG and present during both victories over his current employers. That experience, combined with his leadership, will be vital as Atletico attempts to gain any advantage and scrape those extra margins to pull itself over the line.
All of Chelsea’s previous attempts have been overshadowed by greater depth in the opposing dugout or higher individual quality in certain areas, although this time feels different. Arguably, this is the healthiest squad the Blues have yielded for a while, a contest for anyone on the continent if every member of his expensive ensemble is fully functioning. This being said, Madrid’s bench is in good shape itself, not to mention the starting XI. Luis Suarez and the familiar face of Diego Costa make up one of the most controversially brilliant strike forces the game has ever seen, supported by the lucrative talent of Joao Felix, dynamism and endeavor in midfield, plus the safety of Jan Oblak in goal.
Chelsea will—of course—feel hard done by, through no fault of its own, drawing the short straw where it matters most. Atletico makes for a nervous match-up, but one the Blues cannot shy away from or commiserate for too long if they are to get anyway in football’s most coveted domestic prize.