For Chelsea, it was hard to imagine a more perfect evening. It had been easy to worry about the uncomfortable nature of the Atlético de Madrid threat, but the way they contained the Spanish league leaders offered the latest test of the determination that Thomas Tuchel has brought to the club.
Chelsea took a break in the first half when the score was 0-0 on the night, César Azpilicueta reached into Yannick Carrasco inside the area as the last defender and was not penalized. It looked like a penalty and a red card.
But Atlético couldn’t do anything else and it was hard to remember that Édouard Mendy had to make a stop, apart from the late turnaround to deny João Félix. The blue line in front of him was robust and in front of that, there was N’Golo Kanté, who had one of those nights when he seemed everywhere; skidding forward one minute, closing the door on Atlético the next.
Chelsea have conceded just two goals in 13 games with Tuchel, a ridiculous statistic, and Atlético’s frustration was summed up when Stefan Savic took aim at Antonio Rüdiger’s ribs towards the end, as they pushed into a corner. Rüdiger fell as if a stick had been taken from him and Savic was fired.
But what about Chelsea at the other end? Hakim Ziyech, Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, the expensive summer signings, churning out eye-catching moments, especially when the latter two combined for the former to score the deciding goal and, for the first time in five attempts, Chelsea win a knockout round of the Champions League. Emerson, as a substitute, provided the shine with a late break finish. It wasn’t more than Chelsea deserved.
The first leg had been claustrophobic, marked by Atlético’s reluctance to take risks and the impression that they would be happy with a 0-0. They didn’t get that, thanks to Olivier Giroud’s spectacular aerial kick, so they had no choice here. They had to do something.
The prospect of an open game hadn’t felt very high at the start, given Chelsea’s stiffness under Tuchel and Atlético being, well, Diego Simeone’s Atlético. The Argentine’s system had looked like a 6-3-1 for much of the first leg, but it had to be more expansive here and it was.
Atlético squeezed high at the beginning, eager to pinch possession and provoke in dangerous areas, and it was also noted that Simeone had asked his open midfielders, Marcos Llorente and Yannick Carrasco, to play as such.
Few members of the band are more animated than Simeone and, in the absence of the fans, his continuous praise sounded throughout the stadium. It really takes something for Tuchel to appear the quiet one in the technical area. Simeone is that something.
The Atlético coach was outraged by the non-decisions of the first half. Antonio Rüdiger broke into Luis Suárez on the outskirts of the area, on the right, but the indulgence of Italian referee Daniele Orsato did not matter.
It was in the 27th minute when it was most pronounced. Suarez tried to play in Carrasco only for Azpilicueta to read his intentions and move to return the ball to Mendy. He only left the short pass and, with Carrasco clean on goal, he grabbed it. Carrasco went down and it looked like a penalty. Furthermore, since Azpilicueta had not tried to play the ball, he would have to be sent off if the foul was called. Was not. Mysteriously, the VAR didn’t even verify the decision.
How Chelsea refined the pardon. Shortly after Kai Havertz was booked for catching José María Giménez with an elbow in an aerial challenge, Tuchel’s team broke down to take control of the tie.
His only blink earlier had been a twist and a shot from Werner that went wide. Now they cleared an Atlético cross and, with Kieran Trippier on his heels, Havertz stepped up to the ball before activating the turbocharger. The ease with which he accelerated away from Trippier was surprising and Simeone got lost in a funk. He could see what was about to happen. Havertz played on overlapping Werner and his low center invited Ziyech to finish low passing Jan Oblak.
João Félix had announced his slip threat in the 18th minute with a blast away from Kanté and a play into the box before being sent off. Chelsea heeded the warning, working to close angles towards him and pushing him into non-threatening spaces.
Ziyech’s goal released Chelsea and it was lovely to see Havertz having fun with the ball. He seemed to have an extra half yard of passage while his touch was loaded with security.
Ziyech was good too, all quick feet and incisive actions. He released Werner with a good ball down the inside right channel (Chelsea would receive more and more encouragement behind Atlético) and it took Oblak to throw a steady hand down to ward him off from a tight angle. There was also the moment when Ziyech took a low cross from Reece James, kicked the ball off his feet, and curled into the top corner. Oblak’s roll over was spectacular.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism