TIt was a moment before the time between Chelsea and Atlético de Madrid when Diego Simeone, prowling the sides of the field dressed in black, shouted to his players: “Don’t leave the game.” Hearing his order, crystal clear and echoing across Stamford Bridge, watching what was happening or, more accurately, what was not happening, he couldn’t help but think: Quit the game? They would have to get into that first.
Behind him, the man who had actually left him was sitting on the dais steps with a wry smile and only one sock, tugging at the other. Luis Suárez had 25 games and 2,182 minutes without scoring away in the Champions League and, removed now, that streak was not going to end here. In front of him, losing 1-0 on the night, 2-0 on aggregate, Atlético’s remaining men mostly continued what they had been doing: chasing a ball they couldn’t reach. Always playing “catch up”, in the words of Koke Resurrection.
Suárez’s was the third change Simone made and was followed by a fourth. Mario Hermoso, Moussa Dembélé, Ángel Correa and Thomas Lemar came; They were Renan Lodi, Yannick Carrasco, Suárez and Kieran Trippier. The formations came and went as well, while Marcos Llorente made a tour of all the positions. Despite Suarez’s record, getting their top scorer seemed like an odd choice for a team desperate for goals. And as the coach passed by his bench, he sometimes felt a bit random, like he was determined to try something, anything.
Atlético needed two and didn’t get one. When they reacted, it was too late. A fortnight ago, when João Félix had celebrated a goal at Villarreal with more vindication than joy, Simeone had said that he welcomes rebellious players. The Portuguese did momentarily, and he has much to rebel about, a repressed and angry adolescent with a world that does not understand him. With 15 minutes to go, he brought in a strong save from Édouard Mendy. Another shot skidded wide. And then he cut inside and shot Mendy’s palms.
That last chance, however, was in the 92nd minute and in the 93rd Emerson Palmieri ended the contest with his first touch. There will be no pup named Stamford Bridge to join the dog named Anfield at Llorente’s house.
By then, the visitors had been reduced to 10 men after Stefan Savic was thrown out, and he finally made his way into a long, dark tunnel that invited him to insert his own metaphor. He passed the gardening crew, still cursing. “You piece of shit,” he had said when he had finally left. He was talking about the decision to get the red card from him, but from Atlético’s point of view perhaps he could have applied it to the entire tie. Only this wasn’t exactly a piece of shit and it wasn’t hammering: it wasn’t bad as such, it was just … not much at all. And maybe that’s worse.
Atlético had first set foot in the Chelsea area in 90 seconds, looking to press high. Briefly, the four forwards had done so. But beyond them, a hole had opened. Chelsea found him and quickly took control. “They went through that,” Simeone said. “They found spaces; We couldn’t do what we wanted to do, ”Koke admitted. When Trippier’s center slipped away in the half hour, Chelsea took the lead as well, rushing from one end to the other, away from Trippier’s grip, to score the first goal. And that was that.
Losing to Chelsea is not that unusual. Atlético was in an almost impossible position, only nine teams in history had traced a result at home like theirs, and since Thomas Tuchel took over, his team has gone 13 unbeaten. In 11 of them, they kept the sheets clean. This is a really good team and Atlético got caught twice at halftime. They were also able to point to a possible penalty, maybe even two, on Carrasco and Suárez, although they didn’t, and Simeone quickly replied “no, no, no, no excuses.”
But it was more than that, more even than Atlético’s recent streak: they have only won three of their last 10 games, their lead has been reduced to four points in La Liga and their coach talks about the need to “restart” on Sunday against the Alavés. There will be work to do, damage to repair. RestartSome may wonder if they need to do exactly that while contemplating the lack of ambition, more on the go than here, and the questions it raises, the doubts about their identity. The feeling persists that this is not the football that some of these players are looking for, nor the football that Europe demands.
There is a possibility that when people ask, “Is that all you have?” the answer may be yes. At the end of this game, you didn’t stick with the details, but with broader brushstrokes, broader conclusions, a feeling that Chelsea was so comfortable, so superior, so in control of everything, physically on a different plane; that Llorente, much faster and stronger than everyone in Spain, suddenly seemed so normal; that each loose ball was found with a blue shirt. Sometimes reality brings resignation when you need rebellion, or perhaps deeper reflection. It is what it is; is that Atlético had lost not only the tie but both games, as Barcelona and Seville had done, and it always seemed likely that they would. Stay in the game, Simeone had implored them, as if they had ever been.
After asking for an analysis, there was no hesitation. “Well,” he replied, “they were worthy winners.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism