Pat Nevin: Why Atletico tie is to be savoured, not feared

With the Premier League on the back burner this week, Chelsea legend and columnist Pat Nevin looks forward to our Champions League knockout tie and discusses where an important weapon in our armoury lies…

The weekend’s draw at Southampton might have felt to most fans like two points dropped rather than a point gained in a difficult away game, but the result and the performance has to be looked at in the round.

The first goal lost to an opposition player under Thomas Tuchel was always going to happen, but the fact it took seven games underlines the team is still in a very good place just now.

Of course it was disappointing that all the teams above us in the league managed to win, but that is just one week and there is no doubt there will be plenty of slip-ups by the likes of Leicester, Manchester United and West Ham over the weeks and months to come. If Chelsea can stay this tight at the back then we will not be far from the top four at the end of the season.

That is on the backburner for the moment as the Champions League has to be forefront in our minds today. The defensive line will be the main consideration right now in the team talk. Atletico Madrid are famous for many things, but under Diego Simeone, their mean defence has been their most impressive area over the years. They are a team with a manager who looks personally offended when anyone has the temerity to score against them.

There have however been a few cracks opening in that backline in recent times. While the Blues have lost only two goals in the last seven games while keeping five clean sheets, Atleti have shipped 10 goals in their last seven league games and not managed a single clean sheet during that run. We are missing Thiago Silva but our Spanish opponents have more worries about players missing for a variety of reasons from injury to Covid restrictions to a ban for betting offences.

You can make statistics say whatever you like and you cannot ignore the fact they are top of La Liga just now, but that shouldn’t strike too much fear into the hearts of our lads. This is a long way from being a vintage La Liga season and Thomas Tuchel will be underlining that this is a tie where we should have no inferiority complexes coming in. The boss has plenty of Champions League experience and knows this tie is unlikely to be settled after 90 minutes. He will be desperate to take advantage of any relative weakness in the oppositions defence tonight, as an away goal or two could be even more important that they usually are.

Another important weapon in our armoury is the fact Tuchel has had a few weeks to look at the entire squad not only in games but in training sessions too. A big player could be Kurt Zouma after his performance at the weekend. He hasn’t been first choice of late, but having him as an option could be crucial for this one. Atleti are capable of being a very physical side but there are few if any who can outmuscle our French man mountain. He is also a danger at set-pieces up the other end of the field, so he could well be needed at some point and maybe even right from the start.

Luis Suarez is always a danger, but he hasn’t got the pace to run away from Kurt or indeed Andreas Christenson or Toni Rudiger. His goal scoring instincts haven’t been dulled however and that will make the decision of who to play at the back a big one for us.

One of the other big positives in the build up to this one is the last game Chelsea had in Spain. The 4-0 win against Sevilla was an extraordinary score and even though our manager was different, it is the same group of players that Tuchel will have to choose from. The belief that the group got from that result will be huge and something I have no doubt will have been mentioned in the build-up back at Cobham.

The other big positive is that for once Chelsea will not be playing against a packed defence sitting deep throughout most of the 90 minutes in Madrid. We have had precious few opportunities to play on the break of late, using the energy and pace we have at our disposal and that might just suit us for this one. But it is only one factor in what will be an intriguing tactical battle.

Our hosts usually play with a 3-1-4-2 formation, especially at home, and it is one you rarely come up against in the Premier League. It is however a system Tuchel will be well aware of with his European pedigree. The question is, do we change our formation to tackle this different problem? I am not sure we will, as our 3-4-2-1 or a slight variation of that, seems designed well to deal with their two strikers. We will await the team news with special interest on this occasion because of that.

Even up front it is not simple. Yes, the pace of Timo Werner might make him the obvious candidate, but Olivier Giroud didn’t do too badly in that Sevilla game did he!

A few people felt that this might have been the harshest draw we could have got in the round of 16 and they could be right. It is however a tie to be savoured and not feared. It may be the toughest test yet for Tuchel but one he will be relishing, as we all are.

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