They may all be out of contract in the summer but Jose Mourinho can still rely on Chelsea’s old guard to dig in on the big occasions.
Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard may have joined John Terry in the starting line-up because of injury and suspension elsewhere in the squad but, on an evening when the Blues defended so deep they were two steps from falling into the Manzanares river adjacent to the Vicente Calderon Stadium, few are better suited to the task at hand.
This was Cole’s first start since 26 January and in the interim he had played one half for England against Denmark and 13 minutes at the end of a 3-0 home win against Stoke.
There had been talk pre-match of Mourinho favouring David Luiz at right-back and persisting with Cesar Azpilicueta in his now customary left-back spot, such is the disregard the Portuguese has shown towards Cole, but sanity prevailed and the England defender was his typical tidy self – an almost inevitable seven out of 10.
Solid if unspectacular. That encapsulated Chelsea’s display. Mourinho’s caution reduced Atletico Madrid to working the ball wide before delivering the kind of angled cross Terry and Gary Cahill can deal with blindfolded.
This was Cole’s 104th Champions League appearance, Lampard’s 101st and Terry’s 96th. That experience provided the foundation for survival in a wonderfully vociferous atmosphere; Chelsea’s approach nullified this as a spectacle and if Atletico found it somewhat novel in their first Champions League semi-final since 1974, then Bayern Munich, also in the Spanish capital for tonight’s first leg, and Barcelona surely watched with collective knowing nods.
It may be extraordinarily dull to some but Chelsea’s ability to grind their way towards results like this is a hallmark of their European success and a testament to their discipline and professionalism – characteristics enhanced by Mourinho’s organisational skills.
Chelsea’s reliance on that experience extended beyond the English trio; of the starting line-up, only Azpilicueta and Willian were 25 or under. The average age, just under 29 years old, was elevated by an injury to goalkeeper Petr Cech, who was forced off with what early indications suggested was a dislocated shoulder after only 18 minutes and replaced by Mark Schwarzer.
The 41-year-old is an unknown quantity at this level, making only his second appearance in the competition following December’s dead rubber debut against Steaua Bucharest. He was required to repel Gabi’s second-half free-kick but little else of note as Atletico mustered 26 shots but only 10 mostly tame efforts on target.
That said, Chelsea were unnerved on a few occasions. Lampard will miss the second leg after a mistimed tackle earned him a yellow card while Terry’s 73rd-minute withdrawal through injury prompted an unwelcome reshuffle with André Schürrle introduced and Luiz pushed into central defence.
No matter. Diego Costa could have yielded more from a couple of half-chances, Jon Obi Mikel and Gary Cahill made several important interventions and Azpilicueta was required to continue his fine form, but Chelsea had enough last night to secure a result that leaves next Wednesday’s second leg weighted slightly in their favour.
Chelsea may be running out of players to face Liverpool at Anfield on Sunday but that concern is for another day. Time may be running out for Cole, Lampard and Terry, but it made no difference here.