I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and make the assumption that, had I had full control over the Champions League semi-final draw, I’m not the only one who would’ve arranged for Chelsea to play Atletico Madrid, away from home in the first leg on a Tuesday. I don’t think I’d be the only one who would be wondering in hindsight at this stage whether or not he’d made a sensible decision. I guess the only thing I AM totally sure about is that, from a neutral perspective, the draw really couldn’t have worked out any better. Real Madrid v Bayern Munich is the Hollywood blockbuster equivalent of a football match; the two best attacking sides in the world set to square up once again. And whilst our match-up with Atletico perhaps might be more ‘for the purist’, it promises in any case to be a fascinating tactical contest – effectively a three hour game of chess on a football field.
The fact Atletico represented, marginally, the easiest draw for Chelsea on paper shouldn’t be allowed to detract from just what a close and difficult tie this will be. Those who think the Madrid side are top of La Liga for any reason other than pure merit are sadly mistaken; those who think Diego Simeone’s side have been victorious in the Europa League, European Super Cup and Copa del Rey over the last three years for any other reason would be equally deluded. Since his arrival, the level of improvement and standard of play which Atletico have reached has been nothing short of extraordinary. With a group of players, many of whom had been rejected by other Spanish teams, the majority of others acquired for mere pennies, the Argentine coach has constructed a side that stand head and shoulders above the competition as the greatest exponent of reactive football on the globe.
By themselves, none of Juanfran, Joao Miranda, Diego Godin or Filipe Luis, may not be outstanding individual talents, together however they comprise almost indisputably the best back four in Europe – a fact made even more daunting by the fact Atletico’s midfield and even forward line are perhaps the most defensively disciplined/organised in the world. Meanwhile, forward players as smart and tactically versatile as Koke and Arda Turan make them an almost equally dangerous attacking side. Whilst Diego Costa is a terrifying opponent – the speed and power of skill of whom, should provide John Terry and Gary Cahill their toughest test as a partnership to date.
And if the game itself wasn’t intriguing enough, the level of subtext/sheer quantity of story arcs available for journalists to call upon in their previewing of these fixtures is remarkable also. With Jose Mourinho back in the Spanish capital, up against the side who ensured his ultimately bitter reign in Madrid ended in a fashion befitting of the standard of his final season. Diego Simeone in many ways will be looking to emulate a young Mourinho, announcing himself as an elite managerial talent, capable of inspiring a relatively modest group of players to European glory. Fernando Torres will return to his first club and the side he grew up supporting, and still loves. Diego Costa will square up against the side he continues to be heavily linked with regarding a summer move. Most intriguingly of all however, young Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, we now know will definitely be starting against his own club – a situation which bears the potential of making Chelsea look very daft indeed.
On a certain level, I’m just pleased that all the politics surrounding the situation has been diffused so quickly. Initially it seemed as though the young keeper wouldn’t be able to play, due to some contractual term in his loan agreement that demanded Atletico pay a certain fee (approx €2.5m) per game should they wish to select Courtois in a side against his parent club. UEFA then came out and rubbished this stipulation, declaring it ‘null’ and ‘unenforceable’, before it transpired the Spanish side may still not play the Belgian anyway, through fear of damaging their relationship with Chelsea and of being unable to retain the player for at least another season on loan. Chelsea Chief Exec Ron Gourlay, then eventually confirmed he would be eligible to play, ‘if selected’, effectively and hopefully ending that chapter of the discussion.
Personally, I find the technicalities of whatever agreement is in place to be wholly irrelevant anyway. After overseeing him play such an intrinsic and valuable role in every aspect of his loan side’s relentless overachievement these past three seasons, to deny Courtois the opportunity to represent his side in the semi-finals would be an unpardonable abuse of influence, not to mention a malicious affront upon the general competitive spirit of the game. Also, if I was Courtois and my parent club actively prohibited my involvement in a game of this magnitude, my motivation to return and represent the club would diminish instantly, and severely – which is something we can’t allow to happen.
Ultimately, what will make this game such an entertaining tactical battle, is how both sides thrive under the framework of being the underdogs of a situation. Both teams are extremely comfortable, probably even at their best when absorbing pressure and looking to hurt sides on the counter attack. What makes this such a difficult match to call then is the lack of clarity over just who the ‘underdog’ of the tie is. Clearly of the two clubs, Atleti are the less experienced in terms of competing in these matches over recent years, this being Chelsea’s 7th semi final of the last 11 seasons compared to their 1st. However it is as much of a fact, Simeone has a group of players far more experienced of playing together; and whilst Chelsea are in somewhat of a transition period anyway, safe in the knowledge they’re only likely to improve over the next few years, for Atletico this could represent the best chance they have for an extremely long time – a pressure which could prove to be decisive either way.
It’ll be fascinating to see just who takes the initiative in these matches. Who will surrender the right to allow the other team to take control of possession and risk playing straight into the opposition’s hand by presenting opportunities for the counter attack? These games will almost certainly be the toughest and most tense matches we’ve played since the end of our 2012 Champions League winning campaign – expect to see Chelsea tested to a level and in a way they haven’t been for a very long time, and expect every second of it to be riveting.