Amid the usual smorgasbord of storylines emerging in the Champions League’s knockout stages, Chelsea’s encounter with Atletico Madrid stands out as the best of an elite bunch. Forget about Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain; take a hike, Liverpool versus RB Leipzig; this is the pinnacle of the last 16, and it all starts with the longest-serving coach in the competition taking on its newest of newcomers.
Thomas Tuchel has barely been at Stamford Bridge long enough to unpack, but an unsullied string of results across his first seven games (5W, 2D) is testament to how quickly fortunes can change.
People would wonder which planet you were on if, at the start of this year, you’d suggested Chelsea would be the favorites to reach this season’s Champions League quarter-finals ahead of Atletico. While the Blues managed to top Group E ahead of Sevilla just fine with Frank Lampard calling the shots, it served as only a small distraction from the overall problems at hand.
The Premier League representatives have now appointed a much more experienced mind to lead a squad that was always brimming with potential, and Tuchel signalled early on his desire to see his side play with “a hunger to win, and not a fear to lose.”
Fans got a glimpse of that unforgiving attitude when the coach took Callum Hudson-Odoi off only 30 minutes after he’d come on during the recent 1-1 draw at Southampton. The manager told reporters he was “not happy with [Hudson-Odoi’s] attitude, energy and counter-pressing,” breaking with usual trends to get his point across: that results come before everything else.
Tuchel did explain that his talk with Hudson-Odoi post-match took place in front of the whole squad, so as to limit risk of ostracising the winger, an example of the small things that often make a world of difference:
The German’s changes have been effective, but not groundbreaking, and only evidence of the latter tends to put coaches in that ‘untouchable’ category. Even compatriot Jürgen Klopp, a reigning Premier League champion, recently became subject of rumors he could be fired by Liverpool following a dip in form, a sign of the urgency to seize upon even the slightest stutters.
Despite all the early promise, there’s still a sense Tuchel needs something more meaningful to prove the good work being put into place at Cobham. Beating Atletico to a place in the Champions League’s last eight presents just that.
This clash always stood out among the round-of-16 draw as one of those more finely weighted fixtures of the round. Chelsea and Atleti look relatively even on paper and are almost identical as far as the figures go, poised as the sixth and seventh-most valuable squads left in the competition, per Transfermarkt.
COVID-19 protocols in Madrid mean their meeting takes place at the Arena Națională in Bucharest, Romania, to add another layer to the drama, although like any host this season, Los Rojiblancos lost most advantages from playing at home with no fans allowed to attend.
It’s not only Chelsea’s tweaks for the better under the new regime that make this matchup all the more enticing, but the idea of a wounded beast (but a beast nonetheless) in Atleti. La Liga’s leaders have seen their form go from tearaways to torn apart after winning only one of their last five games, their season hitting a low after losing 2-0 to Levante on Saturday:
Diego Simeone may come to count himself lucky that the wakeup call came now and not in Romania, where the stakes are considerably higher. Tom Allnutt of AFP summarised the many factors running against Spain’s top team, revisiting the same stage of the competition in which they stunned Liverpool—then European champions—last season:
Atletico had endured a similar cacophony of calamities in the lead-up to that meeting with the Reds around this time last year. Their league standing may be superior in 2021, but like 2020, Simeone’s side have one win in four and are already ousted from the Copa del Rey.
And yet, Atletico proved across those two games with Liverpool that they’re one of the few teams in Europe for whom form is almost irrelevant. Even when seemingly in a moment of weakness, the threat looms just as large. Tuchel will be only too aware.
This is, after all, the same Simeone who stunned Spain’s establishment by winning La Liga in 2013 and reaching four European finals (including two Europa League titles). It may be rivals Real Madrid who have risen to become Europe’s dominant force of the past decade, but Atletico have proved a mighty obstacle themselves when it comes to knockout soccer.
Chelsea’s last four Champions League campaigns, meanwhile, have each ended in the round of 16. Shattering that ceiling will be a major portion of the new coach’s remit after his Paris Saint-Germain side finished as runners-up to Bayern Munich last season.
Klopp’s run-in with Leipzig’s Julian Nagelsmann will be considered the best tactical showdown to take place during this season’s round of 16. In years to come, soccer may look back at their showdown as a flashpoint between two coaches emblematic of their generations. But the experience of Tuchel and Simeone, not to mention the size and expectations of their respective clubs, makes for the feistier affair.
Defeat at this stage of the competition, limited tenure or not, runs the risk of being interpreted that little has changed at the club. Tuchel is facing the same expectations that beleagured and ultimately sank his predecessors. But the rewards for a win would form the foundation for a sturdier stay at Stamford Bridge.