There was a collective sigh of disappointment among Chelsea supporters back in December when the Blues were drawn against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Round of 16.
Over the past decade, Diego Simeone’s side have established themselves as one of the most difficult and streetwise opponents to face in European competition – they’ve twice reached the final of the Champions League and also claimed the Europa League on two occasions.
This season, Atleti sit top of La Liga after 23 matches. They are three points ahead of Real Madrid and have a game in hand over their local rivals. And yet there are reasons for optimism for Chelsea ahead of tonight’s first leg in Budapest.
Atletico have won just one of their last four games. They’ve also failed to keep a clean sheet in their last previous seven La Liga matches, the first time that has happened under Simeone.
The once impregnable Atleti defence is no more. But as Tom Allnutt, the Madrid-based sports correspondent for AFP – tells football.london, that is somewhat by design.
“From an English perspective, I think everybody expects this Atletico to be extremely well-organised, very well drilled and defensively impenetrable,” he says. “And I think that is on the basis of the Liverpool tie in the Champions League last season.
“There’s no doubt they’ve still got that within them, but this season it hasn’t been quite like that: they’ve sacrificed a little bit of defensive steel to score more goals.
“Saying that, the goals they have conceded are the type of goals you wouldn’t expect from Atletico; set-pieces, mistakes, lapses of concentration, even routine balls over the top haven’t been dealt with properly.
“So I think Chelsea will look at this Atletico and think they can score against them, which in previous years would’ve been the biggest challenge.
“But equally, I think it’s important not to underestimate Atletico going forward, especially as they have Luis Suarez now who has made a huge difference.”
Suarez joined Atletico in the summer from Barcelona and has established himself as the leader and driving force of Simeone’s side.
The former Liverpool star has scored 16 goals in 24 matches, although he hasn’t struck in the Champions League for Los Rojiblancos.
The 34-year-old is ably supported by a variety of attacking threats, including Joao Felix, Angel Correa, and Marcos Llorente. Belgian winger Yannick Carrasco will miss the game, however, due to injury.
“Chelsea will have to handle these guys because most of them, barring perhaps Felix, are playing well at the moment,” Allnutt adds. “There is a genuine threat there and this won’t be the template Atletico tie that we’ve seen for a decade. And that might help Chelsea.
“I do think this tie comes at an interesting point in Atletico’s season. They’ve been ahead in La Liga for a long time this season but now there are doubts, some uncertainty after taking just one point from back-to-back games against Levente.
“There is very much a feeling that the title race is on again in Spain and the idea that Atletico are going to throw away their lead is growing. So I think this game is at quite an awkward moment for Atletico and a good one for Chelsea.”
The Blues have another advantage going into the tie: Atletico will not host tonight’s game at the Wanda Metropolitano due to Spain’s Covid-19 travel restrictions on visitors from the United Kingdom.
Instead, the two sides flew out to Budapest yesterday and the match will take place in an empty Arena Nationala. And Allnutt believes that will prove detrimental to Atletico’s hopes of qualifying.
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“For Atletico in the Champions League, they’ve always seen their home leg as the key to getting through; the tie against Liverpool last season is a great example of that.
“The win they got at the Wanda gave them the platform to go to Anfield and think they could get through. Of course, without fans in the stadium, it wouldn’t be the same.
“But there’s no doubt something is definitely lost for them by not playing at the Wanda.”