Chelsea v Atletico Madrid: Jose Mourinho will be forced to get on front foot to reach Champions League final
To reach the final against Real Madrid, Mourinho’s side must forget the triumph at Anfield and move out of their comfort zone, writes Jack Pitt-Brooke
Wednesday 30 April 2014
Three days after displaying one form of football brilliance, Chelsea must show a different one on Wednesday night. If Sunday in winning 2-0 at Liverpool was a perfect performance of reactive football, at Stamford Bridge they have another job, obliged to come out and beat an Atletico Madrid side who will themselves sit deep and try to counter-attack.
It is not precisely the scenario that Jose Mourinho wanted going into Wednesday night’s game as it forces Chelsea to adopt a style they are less adept at, the one thing that is just beyond their comfort zone, in coming out to unpick a regimented defence.
Chelsea, certainly, have a good chance of winning the game and going through – they are probably marginal favourites. Reaching a European Cup final is meant to be difficult, in demanding that teams adapt to different situations. But it is not going to be the type of game which Mourinho’s side excels at.
The performance at Anfield was exactly that. It was Chelsea’s best performance of Mourinho’s second tenure, even better than the 1-0 win at Manchester City in February, because of the intense momentum Liverpool came into the game with.
But Chelsea stopped them. With the back four tight and deep, and Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel sat just in front of them, the visitors starved Liverpool of space through the middle and forced them to go wide, which is not their natural style. Andre Schürrle and Mohamed Salah helped to impede them there, playing effectively as full-backs. Chelsea were also good enough on the break to score at the end of each half, for a well-deserved win.
Schürrle described it as the “perfect game” and he was right. Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, said that it was “not difficult to coach, to just get 10 players right on the edge of your 18-yard box,” and he was not. If setting up like that was so easy, visiting teams would win at the Etihad Stadium and at Anfield more often. But they do not; only Chelsea have won at the former, only Chelsea and Southampton at the latter.
Sunday’s display may be the closest thing Mourinho has produced to arguably the signature match of his entire career. His Internazionale side went to Barcelona and, even after Thiago Motta’s first-half dismissal, limited the home side to a 1-0 win in the Nou Camp which sent Inter through to the 2010 Champions League final, which they won. Mourinho still speaks of that European Cup victory as the proudest achievement of his career.
On Wednesday night will be a very different game, though. Chelsea have a different obligation: to win the game. A defeat or a score draw takes Atletico through, while only a 0-0 stalemate sends the game into extra time. It leaves the tie perfectly balanced and Mourinho admitted, in the aftermath of the first leg in Madrid last week, that the draw was not as good a result as some thought. “If we score one goal in one of those situations the result would be very good,” he said of Chelsea’s few half-chances. “We didn’t.”
That was an immaculate defensive display from Chelsea, especially given their injuries, but it was not as complete a performance as at the Etihad or Anfield for the simple reason that they could not do it at the other end of the pitch.
Atletico were blunted, producing one of their least effective performances of an outstanding season. Like Chelsea, their best football is intense, organised, counter-attacking and ultimately reactive. On Sunday, a few hours after Chelsea’s victory, they produced a brilliant away performance of their own, winning 1-0 at Valencia to stay four points clear at the top of La Liga with just three matches left.
So if Chelsea are even slightly more open on Wednesday they will be playing far more into Atletico’s hands than they did in the first leg. There would be more space for Diego Costa or, should he play, David Villa, to attack. There would be more room for Raul Garcia, Koke and Arda Turan to play with and, most probably, a better chance Atletico will score. “If they make space for us, we have to take advantage of it,” midfielder Mario Suarez said on Tuesday night. “That is what Atletico Madrid do in every game.”
It is in this type of game, of course, that Chelsea have struggled most this season. Their record against the best in the Premier League – two wins over Liverpool, two wins over Manchester City, four points from Arsenal – is exceptional. Their problems have come against the lesser sides, whom they have sometimes struggled to break down.
Chelsea have failed to score in seven of their league games this season, City in four and Liverpool in just three. This is the gap, however slight, between Chelsea and those other two teams. Where the west London side have lost ground recently has been in their failed attempts to get past sides who have set up to stop them from scoring: they lost 1-0 at Aston Villa and Crystal Palace in March, and were even beaten 2-1 at home by Sunderland earlier this month.
Mourinho has made clear why he thinks Chelsea have this problem, bemoaning his lack of “real strikers” after the 3-1 defeat at Paris Saint-Germain that nearly led to them being knocked out of the Champions League. With a player like Sergio Aguero or Luis Suarez – or, for that matter, Diego Costa – they would surely be in a far stronger position in all competitions.
But they do not and are still very dependent for game-changing ability on Eden Hazard, who should be back fit for the game, having limped out of the quarter-final second leg with PSG three weeks ago. Then Chelsea were obliged to pick open opponents at home and, of course, they ultimately did it, winning 2-0. However, they were not desperately convincing. The first goal was from a poorly defended long throw, the second, with three minutes left, a tap-in after a deflected shot. Atletico are a tougher team than PSG and the margins will be even finer.
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