It was seven years ago when Jorge Valdano, the former Argentina international and Real Madrid general manager, upset Jose Mourinho by calling the fare served up by his Chelsea side and that offered in return by Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool as ‘s*** on a stick’.
It was during two Champions League semi-finals that the purists were treated to a 0-0 at Stamford Bridge and a second leg that would have ended 0-0 had Luis Garcia’s ghost-goal not counted. Last night’s first leg in the Vicente Calderon in Madrid was an homage of sorts.
It wasn’t so much anti-football as an absence of football in the first half. Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone played the role of Benitez with a team selection that made it clear, right from the off, that he would be happy to go to London next week with a goal-less draw.
The pre-match dilemma of whether to pick Tiago Mendes or Mario Suarez was resolved appropriately with the decision to play them both at the expense of David Villa, who had given such a super-human performance in the quarter-final against Barcelona.
Mourinho’s team selection was the mirror image. Not one, not two, but three holding midfielders given that Frank Lampard is now so regularly cast in that role that it has become his job description.
The Chelsea manager’s penchant for first leg goal-less draws is well known. His master plan three years ago when Real Madrid faced Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu was to take a 0-0 back to the Camp Nou.
And all was going very much to plan until Pepe was sent off for a foul on Dani Alves and Lionel Messi scored twice against the ten men from Real to settle the tie in the first 90 minutes.
Tonight there was no Messi to lift the gloom.
Atletico are a workmanlike side who tend to win 1-0 against sides that put up the defensive barricades but for all he tried to add a 35th goal to his season’s haul, Diego Costa, the man who usually gets the goal in those 1-0 wins, bounced off Gary Cahill and John Terry as he may well do in training next season if Chelsea see through their interest and buy the Brazilian-born Spain international.
Others who might want to earn moves to the Premier League next season also struggled to make an impact.
Koke was lost in the crowded midfield and Thibaut Courtois, whose name was sung heartily throughout by the Atletico Madrid supporters, and none more so than when Petr Cech was down injured, also had little chance to shine, making his first save at the start of the second half from Lampard.
Valdano lived to regret his ‘shit on a stick’ comment when he had to work alongside Mourinho five years later at Real Madrid. The highlight of Mourinho’s presentation press conference was the sight of the Argentine Sporting Director apologising for the comments.
He also went to great lengths to explain his turn of phrase. He claimed to have originally written: “Some shit hanging on a stick in a New York art gallery could come across as art. A bad game at Anfield could come across as a decent match.”
The condensing of his first draft into what eventually made it on to the page in Marca explained the final daming four word verdict. His basic point was that the football had not been the sort that a Champions League semi-final deserved.
The same could be said of last night though neither team will mind much if they reach the final in Portugal next month.
Atletico Madrid fans – so glad to be still in the competition at this stage, and in a semi-final for the first time in 40 years – roared their team forward all night.
And when they couldn’t roar them forward they roared them sideways as Chelsea seemed to block every route to goal.
Atletico could also argue, in contrast to Chelsea’s £150m team, that their side has been cobbled together for around a third of that price and relies heavily, as Chelsea know only too well, on loans.
They will also feel they showed in the last round of the competition that they could out-play a football side when they beat Barcelona with one of the goals of the competition in the first leg and one of it’s best performances in the second.
Last night it was grit that was needed and they were not found wanting.
They failed to take the few chances they created but they kept another clean sheet and that could be the difference between making their first European Cup final in 40 years or not.
The result wasn’t pretty and neither was the football but that absence of a Chelsea away goal will look pretty good to them this morning. No team have conceded fewer goals in this season’s Champions League. If they can score one, then Chelsea will need two to deny them a place in the final.Reuse content