A bicycle finds a way through a roadblock, and gives Chelsea a clear route in this season’s European quest.
The longer trip back from Bucharest will certainly feel much happier, after Olivier Giroud’s spectacular finish gave them a 1-0 victory over Atletico Madrid, as well as that crucial away goal. Diego Simeone’s side might have been plain unlucky that their “home” game had to take place so far from the Metropolitano in the Spanish capital, but there was nothing unlucky about the final result. It was deserved for their defensiveness, and Chelsea’s willingness to try and win.
That also emphasised the extent of Thomas Tuchel’s progress with this side, and the reward for at least trying to play progressive football.
“Trying” was the operative word, mind, because so much of this was utter toil. That crucial goal was essentially something inspired out of almost nothing, which was what was almost always going to be required against a defence as rigorous as this, an approach as conservative as this.
The game was completely conditioned by the fact Simeone’s first, second and third priority was to not concede precisely that “away” goal, in this home from home. It governed everything, and ensured so much of the match was Chelsea just trying to figure out a way through Atletico’s typically robust defence.
Such an approach has made Simeone one of the most respected managers in the world, and Atletico a club to be praised, but neither are exactly loved. That respect means the utter dullness of so many of their games is overlooked. Many might say there’s no duty to entertain – especially in a Champions League game where you’re missing some key players and forced to play your nominal home game over a thousand miles away – but it is why more clubs haven’t tried to prise the Argentine away from Madrid.
There are genuine limits to it in the modern game, that they are now going to have work past for the second leg.
It should be recognised that there can be a relish in just how defiantly they defend, and an adrenaline rush in some of the full-blooded challenges of Felipe or Stefan Savic. Olivier Giroud felt the brunt of this more than once. He was shunted around much more than the Atletico defence was moved around.
It no doubt made his eventual finish – from so much space around him – all the sweeter.
You’d wonder what Tuchel privately thinks of Simeone’s game, given his approach to the sport is the complete opposite. An issue for him up until the opening goal was that development of his own idea with this team is at a completely different stage. While Atletico have been drilled in this way for some time, the Chelsea players are just starting to internalise Tuchel’s interchanging approach. It meant the moves they tried to pull off were just a bit too leaden to really worry Atletico, and no surprise that the only real opportunity of the first half was Mason Mount’s half chance.
Chelsea, for their part, were also conscious of not giving too much space in behind for Simeone’s side to break into. It was possibly all the more likely, then, that the eventual goal came from an Atletico defensive error rather than constructed play that opened them. That came courtesy of Mario Hermoso hooking the ball back towards his own goal, to play Giroud onside and score the most spectacular of bicycle kicks.
It was as precise as it was brilliant, and a welcome moment of imagination in a game dominated by suppression. That created that deeper dilemma for Simeone’s side: to flick a switch to try and save the game, while also not conceding another. They just couldn’t do it. They just couldn’t find that balance.
The failure of Simeone’s gameplan in this match now disrupts his gameplan for the second leg. His team will have to come out to try and rescue this, risking space in behind. Giroud made the most of it here.
It might well mean Chelsea make the quarter-finals, for the first time since 2013/14.
Atletico knocked them out that season when Simeone’s reign was at its peak. It now just looks limited, and may well mean their European venture stops at Stamford Bridge. They have to do much more than put up another roadblock.