Jose Mourinho pays for lack of Chelsea adventure as importance of away goal proves pivotal in Champions League exit to Atletico Madrid
Chelsea's failure to score in the first leg left them so vulnerable that once Torres put them ahead, they were always going to be up against it to reach Lisbon
Maybe, when he looks back on another losing semi-final, Jose Mourinho will wish he had shown more adventure in the first-leg in Madrid last week. In the modern game, with teams so expert at the counter-attack, a goalless first leg away is no longer a great result. It is not a bad one, but it does leave a team vulnerable.
But leopards find it hard to change their spots and Mourinho failed to appreciate that, in the Vicente Calderon, he came up against a kindred spirit.
Brendan Rodgers, with his commitment to attractive attacking play, sent his team out to win Sunday's match at Anfield even though a goalless draw would have been a good result for Liverpool, still keeping the title race in their hands. Diego Simeone, however, approaches matches from the same basic principle as Mourinho: there are no points for artistic merit.
“You can play ten at the back or ten up front,” said Simeone this week. “What matters is the result. In the end it's important that the team, the club, the institution wins, regardless of how it is achieved. If we all played the same way it would be very boring”.
Last week, in Madrid, both teams played much the same way and it was boring. Chelsea played for a nil-nil and Atletico were wary of over-commiting in attack for fear of conceding an away goal. Fans of both clubs will have been glued to their screens but uncommitted viewers all over Europe were reaching for the remote control to see what else was on.
Last night began in similar fashion. Both teams were more positive than last week, but not much more. In the opening 30 minutes we had Koke's mis-hit cross striking the bar, Willian sending a free-kick just over, and Gary Cahill blocking Diego Costa at close range.
For a while the most riveting action was on the touchline. Mourinho and Simeone spent the entire match in the technical areas which at Stamford Bridge, are a bare four foot apart. Mourinho, in the black tracksuit he wears for ease of touchline sprinting, occasionally rested on his haunches, but was always drawn swiftly to his feet aggrieved at an official's decisions or a players' actions. Underlining the idea that these were the bad guys Simeone was also dressed in black, far more stylishly, but still with the haircut vividly described in these pages last week as that of a Mexican prison gang member. The Argentine prowled his demarcated zone like a caged bear and, like Mourinho, frequently stepped out of it to make a point to his players - or the referee.
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It was Fernando Torres' goal which brought attention back to the pitch, changing the game as goals so often do. Suddenly Atletico needed to score and the match opened up. The attacking play which has taken them to the peak of La Liga was unleashed. Their equaliser came from a riot of movement which pulled Chelsea's defence hither and thither with the result that, when the cross came back from Juanfran at the back post Ashley Cole, who should have been there, was standing in the middle of the six-yard box, adrift from his bearings (which is not to excuse the prime culprit, Eden Hazard, who failed to track Juanfran's run).
The away goals rule has its critics these days (exhibit A: the first leg) but it really kicks in when a match reaches the situation this one was in at half-time. A stalemate was no longer possible, one side always had to score. So Mourinho put on a second centre-forward, who made a centre-forward's tackle when in the unfamiliar territory of his own penalty area. Atletico picked their hosts off after that.
So we have an all-Madrid final. Why will anyone outside Spain watch? Well, what draws us to watching sport? Is it the tribalism that brought thousands from Iberia to south west London last night, bedecked in red-and-white? Is it the soap opera plot-lines, like Torres opening last night's scoring against his former team, where he was loved, for his current one, where he is barely tolerated. Or is it the beauty and joy of watching athletes perform at such a high level skills we mortals struggle with?
In truth it is all three. Sport, and football in particular, is beloved by television companies because of the drama it produces and the loyalty it commands. But to attract mass audiences it has to appeal to the uncommitted. The first leg of this tie had good tales – the return to Atletico of Torres and of Mourinho to Madrid, Thibaut Courtois facing the team that owns him – and drama with Petr Cech having to be replaced by a goalkeeper in his 40s, but it was not enough. The actual football was dull.
It could be in Lisbon. Both Madrid teams prefer to counter-attack than make the running, but the odds are it will be a classic because of the rival between the teams and the surfeit of attacking players. Which would be good. Football, for the professionals, is about the result, but for the game to thrive it must be about more than that. It must be about the spectacle, and the glory, about those moments that bring you to your feet at the ground, and, at home, reaching for the remote control not to change channels, but to rewind and see the magic again, in slow-motion.
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