Atletíco Madrid enjoyed virtually all of the play but couldn’t break down an amazingly defensive Chelsea side at the Vicente Calderón, leaving the first Champions League semi-final in the balance.
Talk of Chelsea’s on-loan goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois dominated the press following the draw but in reality, the Belgian was a mere spectator as his parent club defending deep and minimized the space Atletí had to play in. A 0-0 draw was seemingly exactly what José Mourinho set out to achieve, though the jury is out on whether this is a wise strategy in European football these days.
Diego Simeone named a straightforward starting eleven. Diego Ribas got the nod to play behind Diego Costa with Raúl Garcia playing from the right against Ashley Cole. David Villa was joined on the bench by Arda Turan, just back from injury. Mario Suárez partnered Gabi at the base of the midfield in place of former Chelsea man Tiago, who had started the 1-0 win against Barcelona in the quarters.
The team Mourinho sent out was more interesting. Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard were both injury, while Branislav Ivanovic, so the back four picked itself, with César Azpilicueta making the change from left to right back. In midfield, as is customary in big games since Christmas, David Luíz started and he was joined by John Obi Mikel – a first start for the Nigerian since the 0-o draw with West Ham in January. Ramires and Willian were selected as hard-working options on the flanks and Fernando Torres started against his former club alone up-front.
Chelsea retain shape
The opening exchanges were scrappy, with the referee Jonas Eriksson extremely whistle-happy. Once the game settled down, the pattern was clear – Chelsea were not here to play.
Out of possession, Mourinho’s men defended extremely close to their own goal with the defenders and midfielders never more than fifteen yards away. Mikel in particular often dropped in between John Terry and Gary Cahill to prevent Costa receiving quality service to his feet, while Luiz and Lampard also played very compact roles. In many ways, it was a similar setup to the one that won Chelsea the Champions League two years ago; in the games against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, Roberto Di Matteo had his three central midfielders play close together to minimize the space in front of the back four. On the flanks, Ramires and Willian often doubled up as auxiliary fullbacks, tracking Juanfran and Filipe Luis as they tried to overlap. It was the quintessential way to play 4-5-1 without the ball: when the home side had the ball, black shirts impeccably assembled in lines of four and five, making it extremely hard to play incisive forward passes.
This posed an interesting problem for Atletí. Increasingly as the season has gone on, teams have realised that Simeone is happier for teams to come on to them, leaving space in behind should the ball be turned over. Teams defending deep, particularly at the Calderón has been an issue they’ve had to overcome throughout the season but never before have they had to do it against a side of the magnitude of Chelsea. This, in many ways, was quite the compliment to Simeone by his opposite number.
From 29% in the Barca game to 69% in this, it was a completely different test for the hosts. It was evident that they had targeted Cole’s lack of height and tried to isolate him against Garcia who also made a couple of good diagonal runs from right to left that were denied by Chelsea’s defenders holding a good line and calling offside.
Atlético’s player influence (taken from FourFourTwo statszone)
With the centre of the park congested, they looked to the flanks. Juanfran and Filipe Luis played extremely high up the pitch (see player influence – Torres Belén and Kasmirski) and looked to cross the ball into the box but a combination of poor delivery and excellent defensive headers meant it was largely unsuccessful (just 3 accurate crosses from 20 in the first half). Diego Ribas was heavily involved in most attacks and looked bright, spinning in midfield to shift the play from flank to flank but ultimately couldn’t provide any vertical quality to create a chance for his namesake Costa.
No interest in possession
The Blues defended excellently, but their counter attacks were poor. Torres’ movement was poor and his take-ons cumbersome, while Ramires wasted their best first-half break by chipping well wide of Courtois’ far post. The midfielders never looked to get on the ball – at one stage they did string a few passes together which lead to Azpilicueta conceding a throw-in on the halfway line after Atletíco pressed well, highlighting the danger Mourinho wanted to avoid. He didn’t want his side losing the ball in dangerous areas. At another point, with the hosts pressing high, John Terry simply lumped the ball into the corner, 30 yards from his nearest teammate. There was zero emphasis on ball retention.
After the break, Simeone attempted to shake things up. His first change, Turan on for Diego Ribas was pretty much like for like with García moving into the centre to provide more aerial thrust in the box before José Sosa came on for Suárez, with Koke moving deep and the Argentinian stretching the play on the right. These changes, coupled with injuries to Terry and earlier Petr Cech seemed to open up the game ever so slightly and the delivery from wide areas was better – Costa was close to getting on the end of a couple of dangerous crosses and Turan headed over from a decent back-post position.
Mourinho’s system remained constant throughout. When Terry went off with around 20 minutes to go, he summoned André Schurrle from the bench, moving Luiz to centre back, Ramires to midfield and putting the German on the right. The pattern of the game was unaltered, though Atletíco had more openings when the Chelsea skipper was off the pitch.
After the game, Mourinho conceded that he didn’t want to go into next week’s return chasing the tie and that probably explains his rationale. That said, 0-0 isn’t necessarily a terrible result for Atletíco either – a score draw at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea will have to play more on the front foot is most definitely within their reach.
Mourinho on Sky Italia: “No, I wasn’t looking for 0-0. But didn’t want to start return leg down a goal either.”
— Gabriele Marcotti (@Marcotti) April 22, 2014
Gabi, Lampard and Mikel will all be suspended for the return and Cech and Terry will probably be injured, leaving both managers with selection issues. Mourinho’s hand may be forced in midfield as Luiz may be required in defence (although Ivanovic could slot in there), meaning Ramires could play centrally with someone like Oscar involved from the start too.
First up, however, it’s Liverpool on Sunday for Chelsea and Valencia for Atletí as domestic concerns take centre stage once more.