Atletico Madrid and Chelsea could scarcely be heading into Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal first leg in more contrasting spirits. While Atletico won their eighth straight La Liga game to maintain their advantage at the top of the table, Chelsea fell to their third defeat in their last six Premier League fixtures to drop five points off the top with just three matches remaining.
Chelsea’s focus has now surely shifted toward the Champions League, while Atletico, with a team built on a fraction of the resources of their next opponents, very much have thoughts of an incredible double on their mind.
There is no sense of Atletico easing off on either front. It appeared early in 2014 that the much-predicted fatigue was beginning to creep into Diego Simeone’s thin squad, yet Atletico have gone again as the season reaches its climax. Given the intensity at which the side play and the meager rotation there has been of the starting lineup, it is just one of the aspects of Atletico’s season that is worthy of huge praise. And Atletico will have a full-strength squad to choose from at the Vicente Calderon on Tuesday. Arda Turan has returned to training following an injury picked up during the first leg of the quarterfinal win over Barcelona three weeks ago. And after much speculation, Thibaut Courtois, the goalkeeper on loan at Atletico from Chelsea, will be allowed to take on his parent club.
The fact that Courtois is in his third year on loan at Atletico from Stamford Bridge, until he is deemed ready to replace Petr Cech, shows the gulf between the clubs. Chelsea have a net spend of £311 million in the last five years compared to Atletico’s net profit of £38 million, and have the loftier ambitions to match. There are plenty of reasons why many, including Courtois, consider Chelsea the favorites. But a look purely on matters on the pitch suggests otherwise.
With two teams built upon tight defenses and a counter-punching style, goals are likely to be at a premium and the margins fine. But crucially, it is Atletico that are currently a better honed team for their purpose. Aged just 21, Courtois is already one of the world’s best goalkeepers and arguably playing at a higher level than the man who has thus far halted his Chelsea career, Cech. The defense in front of him is a major source of confidence. Miranda and Diego Godin have formed a water-tight partnership, while full-backs Filipe Luis and Juanfran are solid both with and without the ball.
Chelsea’s defense has also been mightily impressive since Mourinho went back to basics midway through the season. In recent weeks, though, costly errors have crept in. Cech, likely to return after missing Saturday’s defeat through illness, has had his uncertain moments on crosses, there was Terry’s own goal at Crystal Palace, while Cesar Azpilicueta clumsily gifted Sunderland their winning goal form the penalty spot.
In midfield, Chelsea’s lack of ability on the ball has also been shown up in games against stubborn well-organized teams like Atletico. Nemanja Matic’s arrival has helped, but he is ineligible in the Champions League. The passing limitations of Ramires and Frank Lampard and the lack of threat they provide going forward means that David Luiz could well be used in his less favored position once again. Gabi and Tiago are also primarily concerned with providing a solid shield in front of the back four, although Gabi has provided more assists than any of his Chelsea counterparts.
In front of a defensive midfield duo, Chelsea have an impressive collection of star names. Eden Hazard, who is set to return from injury, Oscar and Willian, with Andre Schurrle as an alternative, on their day present a thrilling threat to the opposition. However, while Oscar has looked jaded for several weeks, the real problem is that all too often Chelsea’s attacking midfield trio bear the entire responsibility for both creating and scoring goals.
Atletico share the load better. Koke and Arda have supplied 20 assists between them this season, while they have reliable goal-scorers in Raul Garcia, David Villa, and of course Diego Costa.
It is no surprise that Chelsea appear so keen to sign Costa at whatever cost this summer. He would be an ideal fit in Chelsea’s system, as he currently is in Atletico’s. The Brazilian-born Spain international has the work rate, tenacity and finishing ability to be the perfect leader of the line in a counter-attacking side. What Costa offers contrasts sharply with what Chelsea will be able to field. Samuel Eto’o has been left at home with a knee injury, meaning that Jose Mourinho will have to go with either Demba Ba or Fernando Torres up front. Torres will be desperate to play against the club where he came through the youth set up, yet he is barely recognizable of the player he was at Atletico and early on at Liverpool. And although Ba scored the winner against Paris Saint-Germain in the last round, Mourinho will be loathed to depend on him from the start in a match of this magnitude.
Unlike Chelsea, Atletico do not have any weaknesses in their side. And coupled with the intensity they are sure to play with in front of a ferocious atmosphere at the Vicente Calderon, their greater array of attacking options should allow Simeone’s men to secure a narrow first-leg lead.
Prediction: Atletico Madrid 1-0 Chelsea