Atletico Madrid and Chelsea’s dreams of booking a place in this year’s Champions League Final in Lisbon were kept very much alive after an attritional goalless draw in the first leg of their semifinal in the Vicente Calderon. With the strongest defenses from both the Spanish and English top flights on show chances were at a premium and entertainment limited, but the match has set up a fascinating encounter at Stamford Bridge next week with all very much still to play for.
There were a few surprises among the two teams’ starting line-ups before the game, with Chelsea’s attacking pair Eden Hazard and Samuel Eto’o both missing out entirely through injury. Former Atletico favorite and once captain of current manager Diego Simeone Fernando Torres started for the first time in around a month, with the hero of the quarter final Demba Ba back on the bench.
Chelsea started with a defensively-minded 4-3-3 with Frank Lampard, David Luiz and John Obi Mikel in the center, lining up against Atletico’s 4-2-3-1, with Brazilian playmaker Diego who also scored against Barcelona in their quarter final preferred to Torres’ Spain strike partner of old, David Villa. Torres was warmly welcomed back by the home fans, but the same greeting was not extended to former Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho, an unpopular figure in the region. Thibaut Courtois and Diego Costa could both be playing for Chelsea next season, but were out tonight to extend their stellar home form this season; before the game, they had won 23, drawn four and lost only once.
The game started in a much more offensive vein than it was to continue, with a Diego shot dribbling wide after 80 seconds or so, seemingly with the instruction to shoot on sight as Chelsea dug in around the edge of their penalty area. Costa and John Terry were getting up close and personal from very early on in a battle which was to prove key as the match wore on, but Terry seemed to have the upper hand as Costa, like his counterpart Torres, was starved of service from his midfield.
The first defining moment of the match came after a quarter of an hour, with the constant deafening whistling to Chelsea possession putting the visitors off enough for the home side to win the first corner of the game. The ball was whipped in towards the goal and Petr Cech was just able to tip the ball over the bar, but Luiz bundled Atletico midfielder Raul Garcia into the goalkeeper who was down injured for some time. He was replaced by Mark Schwarzer, and it has since been confirmed that the Czech stopper went off with a dislocated shoulder.
As the clock ticked towards the half-hour mark, the home side were knocking at the door but found themselves turned away by a succession of extremely tight but ultimately correct offside calls. In an extremely physical opening to the game Chelsea had their first real opportunity with 27 minutes played with Willian finding his compatriot Ramires in space on the right, but the midfielder was frustratingly indecisive and his cross-cum-shot sailed out of play, nowhere near the goal or the onrushing Torres, making a run in the center.
It was a feature of Chelsea’s play that while Willian and Ramires were getting back to support their defense effectively, they were often too far back to offer meaningful support to Torres when Chelsea were on the break, with the striker all too often having to fight for a lofted clearance with no one to give the ball on to. Mario Suarez and David Luiz both saw efforts go astray as half time loomed, but it was Mourinho who would have been more satisfied at the break after seeing his side frustrate the hosts, who were unable to forge a clear-cut opportunity.
The second half began in much the same way as the first with Lampard firing a half volley straight at Courtois within two minutes, and the atmosphere threatened to boil over after David Luiz was floored by a cynical body check from Diego, with Atletico manager Simeone stirring up the fans with some dramatic cheerleading.
With ten minutes of the second half gone there was a real chance for the hosts as a weak punch from Schwarzer, who has European final experience with Middlesbrough and Fulham, fell to Diego. Luckily for the 41-year old-Australian, the midfielder had to take an extra touch and the keeper was able to make amends with a straightforward save.
Four minutes later, Torres threatened to seize the occasion with a fantastic piece of dribbling taking him past three players, but his drag back and shot was curled straight into the grateful arms of Courtois. Diego’s last touch of the encounter came with a dipping half volley which bounced wide of the post, before he was replaced by Turkish midfielder Arda Turan with half an hour to go.
A short spell of Atletico pressure followed but Chelsea had a man on the end of every cross and every pass into the box, though Lampard, Mikel and Gabi were all ruled out of the second leg with yellow cards; the England man was perhaps fortunate to escape a red after a fairly clear handball.
With 20 minutes remaining, John Terry was forced off with injury and bizarrely, it seemed to come from David Luiz once more as he landed awkwardly on the Brazilian’s foot, turning his ankle in the process. He tried to continue but was soon on the floor again and was replaced by Andre Schuerrle, with Luiz dropping back alongside Gary Cahill. Schuerrle had proved an effective substitute against PSG earlier in the competition, but was unable to make such an impact here.
As the game drew to a close the number and quality of chances increased, usually coming from the Atletico full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis, whose crossing was superb throughout. Turan and Costa were both guilty of missing chances in the closing stages though Costa was at least trying to ignite the match with a couple of failed attempts at bicycle kicks.
David Villa was introduced to the fray with five minutes to go so Spain’s fabled strike partnership of Torres and Villa was reunited, and the former nearly made the difference with some more silky dribbling in the closing minutes. He was felled by Brazilian center-half Miranda who received a yellow card by his troubles but once more Luiz failed to threaten with the resulting free kick.
Demba Ba was brought on with five minutes of stoppage time and he did well to win a corner with that time having elapsed, but nothing came of it and both sides escaped to fight another day. The tie is finely poised with Chelsea missing out on the opportunity for an away goal but having home advantage in the return tie next Wednesday.