At least the viewers of ITV had the spectacle of Roy Keane blaming the Manchester United players for David Moyes’ demise, those of us in the Vicente Calderon stadium just had the football – or what occasionally passed as football – to keep us occupied tonight.
When Jose Mourinho is pushed into the proverbial corner, hidebound by injuries and suspensions and with a place in the Champions League final at stake he tends towards the conservative. It is a trick that he does better than any other, with his densely-populated midfield, a relentless defence and a mentality that whatever happens, and however far his team have to retreat, they will not concede, no matter what.
Sometimes it can produce a beguiling spectacle of attack against defence and there were some moments at the hectic end of the game when that was the case. There were some admirable performances, not least from Gary Cahill, Cesar Azpilicueta and Ashley Cole as both Petr Cech and then John Terry, another rock in the defence, went off with injury. If you like blocks and tackles and defensive header after defensive header then this was certainly your kind of game.
It should also be said that there was also much – the first half in particular – which was instantly forgettable. It was not until all but Fernando Torres in the Chelsea team were defending for their lives in the closing stages that the game matched the noise and atmosphere conjured up the home fans, and then only in patches.
At Stamford Bridge next Wednesday for the second leg, Chelsea will surely be without Cech who dislocated a shoulder in a collision with Raul Garcia in the 17th minute. Terry will also be missing with that ankle injury. Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel will be suspended. But as ever, one expects that Mourinho will have a solution, one win from the third Champions League final of his career.
Back came the ghosts of Chelsea past for a game in which Mourinho did not want to a yield a yard without a fight. That old dog of war Mikel returned to the midfield, his first start since the FA Cup defeat to Manchester City. Ashley Cole came back into the starting XI for the first time since the win over Stoke in the same competition at the end of January. Torres was dispatched to lead the line alone, and alone he was for much of the game.
This was a textbook Mourinho team designed to shut the opposition down, take the tie back to Stamford Bridge level where another cunning plan would be hatched to finish the job.
Given that Mourinho did not believe that he had the tools for the job at the end of August and with Eden Hazard injured, Branislav Ivanovic suspended and Oscar’s form wavering he doubtless feels even less optimistic now. He is marshalling his resources as he sees fit although none of it made for a classic first half.
Atletico would have to take a share of the blame too, although they had the better chances – which is not saying much. A header from Raul Garcia that cleared the bar on 30 minutes was the best of it. Azpilicueta threw himself in the way of a shot by Diego Costa before the break. They had more than 60 per cent of the possession before the half and more than 80 per cent of the best ideas as to what to do with it, but they barely tested either of Chelsea’s two goalkeepers.
Cech was led to the sideline on 17 minutes having landed awkwardly on his right elbow when Raul Garcia charged into him at a corner. Not that it was the Atletico man’s fault. He was helped on his way by David Luiz whose tactical shove increased the impact with Cech, who was signalling his unsuitability to go on within seconds of hitting the deck.
It meant more action for Mark Schwarzer, the 41-year-old Australian who was in the Fulham team that lost to Atletico in the 2010 Europa League final. After his parried shot against Sunderland on Saturday, that went straight to the feet of Connor Wickham, he had a more confident game.
At the other end, Thibaut Courtois, the third Chelsea goalkeeper to feature tonight, came and missed a corner from Lampard on 20 minutes that Cahill headed wide. In defence of the young Belgian, he was wrestled out of it by Mikel. He later came to pluck further corners out the air with the assurance that makes you wonder whether he should be doing Cech’s job next season.
As for Torres, there was precious little of the ball. One bad touch on 33 minutes from a Luiz free-kick meant that a potential half-chance eluded him. Cole was solid in spite of a very bad early studding from Raul Garcia that was worthy of a booking.
It got no better for Torres after the break when he was obliged to work in almost complete isolation save for one tackle and run from Cole which brought the ball forward like a missive from basecamp. Torres went off on an indulgent dribble that ended with a mediocre shot, and in the circumstances who could blame him?
Having fallen back deeper and deeper in the first half, Chelsea could only go in one direction. Their cause was not helped with around 20 minutes remaining when Terry, a mainstay of their performance, injured himself at a corner. It was a strange incident which involved him landing on Luiz’s foot and appearing to roll his ankle. Has there ever been a Chelsea game before where both Terry and Cech were obliged to go off with injury?
In his place came Andre Schurrle, triggering a reorganisation throughout the Chelsea team with the German taking Ramires’ place on the right side of what was effectively a five-man midfield. Ramires moved back alongside Mikel and Luiz retreated into Terry’s erstwhile position in the middle of defence.
There was little sympathy on offer for Terry given what the Atletico players regarded as tactics among their opponents to waste time. They were right, of course, although Terry and Cech were genuine casualties. There was also an extensive protest when Frank Lampard, already on a booking, was penalised for handling the ball and not given a second yellow card.
In the end, Atletico lacked the invention to break down Mourinho’s side who were whistled off as they left the pitch. Which is just the way this Chelsea team like it.
Atletico (4-4-2): Courtois; Juanfran, Miranda, Godin, Filipe Luis; Garcia, Gabi, Suarez, Koke; Diego Costa, Diego Ribas.
Subs: Turan/Diego Ribas 60; Sosa/Mario Suarez 79, Garcia/Villa 86
Chelsea (4-3-3): Cech; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Luiz, Lampard; Ramires, Torres, Willian.
Subs: Schwarzer/Cech 17, Schurrle/Terry 73, Ba/Willian 90
Booked: Atletico Gabi, Miranda Chelsea Lampard
Referee: J Eriksson (Sweden).
Man of the match: Cahill (Chelsea)