Atletico Madrid produced a stirring display to ensure the final of European football’s flagship competition will be a single-city affair for the first time ever in Lisbon next month. Diego Simeone’s side came from a goal down against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge to score three times and romp into the Champions League final where they’ll meet their illustrious neighbors from across the city, Real Madrid.
After a turgid goalless draw in the first leg, Fernando Torres’s deflected strike put Chelsea in front against his former club to finally provide a breakthrough on the night and in the tie. But the crucial moment came just over a minute before half-time when Adrian Lopez scuffed a shot into the net after Chelsea’s backline woefully came unstuck having been depended upon so heavily to ensure the London side would have a chance at a second Champions League crown in three years.
Atletico now had the edge on away goals, but they declined to sit on it and were rewarded when extending their advantage after Diego Costa was fouled by the man brought onto try and fire Chelsea back in front, Samuel Eto’o. After a tension-filled minute as Costa tended to the penalty spot, the striker coveted by Chelsea converted with aplomb. With Chelsea now ragged, the tie was put beyond doubt when Arda Turan stuck in a third after Mark Schwarzer had tipped his header onto the bar. Meanwhile, the man who would have been in the Chelsea goal had he not been loaned to Atletico was superb at the other end, making sensational saves at crucial times to preserve his team’s advantage.
Atletico’s positivity that grew into a swagger as the second-half wore in was richly rewarded, and their greater balance between attack and defense proved pivotal. Chelsea’s tactics to so obviously play for a goalless draw in Madrid last week always left them vulnerable with a counter-attacking Atletico side heading to Stamford Bridge as the only side capable of getting an away goal. And, sure enough, the away goal proved the decisive moment of the tie.
Chelsea appeared shell-shocked that their dependable defense, which was boosted by the presence of Cesar Azpilicueta playing on the right of midfield, had been breached. Faced with having to change tact, Jose Mourinho perhaps responded too drastically when bringing on Eto’o early in the second half and opening up the game which gave Atletico the chance to kill them at the other end. While vulnerable at the back, once forced to take the initiative, as so often this season, Chelsea lacked the weapons and ideas to do so.
Ultimately, though, an Atletico team built on a fraction of the cost of their opponents, simply performed better and with greater assurance on the night. For that, immense credit must go to Simeone. In two-and-a-half years the Argentinean has overseen an incredible turnaround on a once dysfunctional mess of a club. He is now just three wins away from guiding the club to their first ever European Cup and their first La Liga title since Simeone was running their midfield in 1996 with the same force of will he does from the sidelines in 2014.
Both managers had a surprise in their starting lineups. Adrian Lopez was in for Atletico ahead of both Raul Garcia and David Villa. For Chelsea, Ashley Cole was included in a left-back role that Azpilicueta has been so impressive in for much of the season, while the Spaniard added further defensive cover in midfield.
But if Chelsea were intent on simply sitting back and conceding possession as in Madrid, they were prevented from doing so by an Atletico side that had no obligation or great desire to push forward away from home. Perhaps because of how fatal an away goal could prove, there was an anxiety from Chelsea at the back unfamiliar from their two lockdown performances at the Vicente Calderon and Anfield in the past week.
In just the fourth minute Schwarzer was beaten by Koke’s cross and was relieved to see the ball come back off the crossbar. It was again a half of few chances, with both sides wary of making mistakes and a tight battle commencing in a hugely congested midfield. It was Atletico who erred first, allowing Chelsea to grab an advantage that appeared key.
Willian was allowed to escape the attentions of both Filipe Luis and Diego Godin down by the corner flag, allowing Azpilicueta to pull the ball back for Torres, whose first-time shot got a pivotal deflection off Mario Suarez to take it past Courtois. The striker declined to celebrate against a club which has been such an important part of his life and whose fans still worship him. In just eight minutes time his teammates and the majority of those in the stands were equally muted.
From a diagonal ball into the box from former Chelsea midfielder Tiago, Eden Hazard switched off, Juanfran turned on the afterburners and hooked the ball back across the face of goal from the byline. Chelsea should still have averted the danger, but both John Terry and Cole missed their clearances and Adrian struck a shot into the ground and past Schwarzer. The Spanish forward has started rarely this season, but he has proved a man for the big occasion having also assisted their winner in the previous round against Barcelona.
Incredibly, Chelsea were close to conceding an almost replica goal just two minutes after the interval. This, time, though, after several defenders again missed chances to clear, Arda’s shot was straight at Schwarzer who blocked behind. Soon it was Atletico’s goalkeeper who came to the fore in spectacular fashion. The ball looked destined to hit the back of the net after coming crashing off Terry’s head from Willian’s free-kick, but Courtois impressively got down in time to keep the effort at bay.
Moments later, Mourinho rolled the dice and replaced Cole with Eto’o to give Chelsea a two-man frontline. But the Cameroonian veteran’s only impact was to be at the other end. With the ball dropping on the edge of the box, Costa got a crucial touch to it before Eto’o arrived late and took the Brazilian-born Spain international down. There was incredible tension as Costa repeatedly tended to the penalty spot and was booked for his trouble before getting involved in an altercation with Chelsea players. Having missed four penalties this season, the delay may have been expected to unnerve Costa decisively. Instead, he struck it high into the roof of the net and put Atletico in command.
There was still little sign of Atletico simply trying to hold what they had. Instead, in the second half they showed quality on the ball that was superior to anything that Chelsea produced over the two legs. Koke, Arda and Adrian were all excellent in support of Costa. Although David Luiz put a header against the bar, there was little sign that Chelsea had the ability to get back into the contest.
And Arda ensured that Atletico’s players and vociferous travelling support could enjoy the final 18 minutes in the comforting knowledge that they would be heading to Lisbon. Hazard was again culpable, switching off to allow Juanfran to run off him and this time pull it back for Arda, whose initial header was turned onto the bar by Schwarzer but fortunately came straight back to the gifted Turkey international to slot home the rebound.
Atletico’s rise moved to another level when beating Real Madrid in the final of the Copa del Rey final, and just a year on it they could well do similar to quite implausibly reach the pinnacle of the European game.