The Blues are in Bucharest but not to face Romanian opposition. Club historian Rick Glanvill and club statistician Paul Dutton have that story and plenty more about the unusual start to our Champions League knockout campaign…
Chelsea and Atletico Madrid both dropped points domestically ahead of this first leg of the Champions League Round of 16. The Blues drew 1-1 at struggling Southampton, while the Liga leaders lost 2-0 at home to mid-table Levante, their second loss of the campaign.
Diego Simeone’s side finished a distant second behind Bayern Munich in this season’s Champions League Group A, winning twice before the competition took its winter break. Chelsea, under previous boss Frank Lampard, were unbeaten in Group E, secured a rare three away wins and scored the most goals on the road across the whole competition. The Londoners scored twice as many group stage goals as tonight’s hosts (14 versus 7).
Chelsea have never lost an away match to the Mattress-Makers, winning once and drawing twice. The Blues’ last game in Spain was the 4-0 thrashing of Sevilla, though Covid travel restrictions mean tonight’s venue is at Bucharest’s Arena Nationala in Romanian, not Spanish soil.
Other clubs might consider it an advantage to be playing at a neutral venue. Less so, perhaps, Chelsea for whom Atleti’s Wanda Metropolitana holds no fear. The Londoners became the first team to win at their newly-opened stadium in September 2017, and the only one in European competition.
Chelsea have suffered only one defeat in the past 13 away matches against Spanish opposition.
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Chelsea team news
Chelsea are aiming to make it four Champions league wins in a row on the road this evening. An away win would be the Blues’ first in the knockout stages since a quarter-final at Benfica in March 2012, when Salomon Kalou notched one of his occasionally priceless goals.
Since reaching the semi-finals in 2013/14, though, the Blues’ progress in this competition has stalled at this stage every time.
Domestically, Southampton’s Takumi’s Minamino became the first opposition player to breach the Blues’ rearguard under Thomas Tuchel. That was the Saints’ only attempt on target, further testament to the Londoners’ improved defending overall.
However, the Bavarian’s team have also found goals harder to come by than earlier in the season and football lore has it that when you have the chance to score against Diego Simeone’s miserly side you really have to take it.
Tuchel wants his team to dominate the rhythm of matches and that may be tricky against a team determined to put their weekend setback behind them. The two teams look tactically similar too. Since the group stages both have switched to a back three set-up with two central midfielders, attacking wing-backs, and two number 10s behind a striker.
Although leading scorer Tammy Abraham was substituted and sat in the stands at St Mary’s with ice on an ankle it was described as nothing serious. Olivier Giroud has found the net every 28 minutes in this competition and has struck five goals overall. Christian Pulisic and Kai Havertz are fit again and five subs are permitted in this competition.
Callum Hudson-Odoi has arguably been the best attacking player under Tuchel so it is important he has responded positively to being subbed off at St Mary’s, and may well start tonight. Whoever plays on the left will want to exploit Kieran Trippier’s absence with no natural replacement available to Simeone.
Key to any Blues’ success in this tie, though, will be keeping the Rojiblancos at bay without Thiago Silva. Mid-table Levante saw out a 2-0 win at the weekend despite 28 shots on their goal (11 on target) thanks to wholehearted defending and a goalkeeper in inspired form.
We were behind for a total of only four minutes during the Champions League group stage, less than any rival in the competition, conceding the second-fewest goals in the group phase. Edou Mendy conceded just one goal, and had the best save-rate in the competition with 94 per cent. In front of him, Andreas Christensen may return to the Chelsea defence.
As well as unfamiliarity with their ‘home’ ground, Atletico have the slight disadvantage of playing their third game in seven days, whereas the Londoners had the luxury of a clear midweek.
Diego Simeone’s notoriously hard-working team were the lowest scorers of the 16 who qualified for the knockout phase with seven goals in six games, yet ‘Cholo’ Simeone’s approach has evolved since out last encounter in 2017/18, with a major squad overhaul that drastically reduced the age. A shift from 4-4-2 to 3-4-2-1 has meant less of a deep, narrow-defending, direct counter-attacking side and more of a passing, possession-based one with a single striker supported by clever widemen.
The Liga leaders still have the meanest defence, but an average of 1.91 goals per game compared to 1.50 three seasons ago. In the past few weeks, though, defensive errors and injured absentees have seen them drop points in three of their past four games and concede in each of the last seven.
Atletico have developed a bad habit of conceding first – something that has happened in five of their past seven league fixtures, four goals of which, weirdly, came between the 10th and 18th minutes. Bitter rivals Real have capitalised to close the gap from 10 to three points, increasing anxiety ahead of the Madrid derby in 12 days’ time. All these issues may prompt Simeone to revert to type against English opposition.
At 34 years of age, Luis Suarez is the Primera’s leading marksman with 16 goals but has failed to register a goal or assist in the Champions League group stage and has not found the net in his past three Primera performances. A foul by the Uruguayan also ruled out what could have been a crucial equaliser for his team on Saturday.
Losing winger Yannick Carrasco for yet another match at the weekend came with the compensation for Simeone of Thomas Lamar’s return. However, Lamar replaced stricken right centre-back Jose Gimenez, who had returned faster than expected from a spell on the sidelines. Atletico will miss his aerial prowess and ability to bring the ball out from the back.
Kieran Trippier is still banned for this first leg but not the second in three weeks’ time, and Marcos Llorente has been playing out of position as a stand-in right wing-back. Saul Niguez, who has also filled in for the former Spur, will return tonight from domestic suspension, along with Stefan Savic.
New men Ricard Sanchez and former Lyon striker Moussa Dembele made short, quiet debuts at the weekend, but Simeone will be comparatively short of resources on the bench.
How to watch Atletico-Chelsea
This match will be covered live by BT Sport in the UK. To find the relevant broadcaster where you are elsewhere, see UEFA’s TV guide.
Chelsea TV’s globally available matchday shows include early team news, exclusive interviews and analysis and can be found on the 5th Stand app, Facebook Live and official YouTube channel.
Beating Round of 16 blues
This is sixth time in the past eight campaigns Chelsea have reached the knockout phase. The Blues will be determined to progress to the last eight for the first time since 2013/14, when a 1-1- draw at Galatasaray was followed up with a comfortable 2-0 victory. The Blues’ strong showing that season ended in the semi-finals – against tonight’s hosts.
In truth, only one of our Round of 16 exits since then has been a close thing, with a 1-7 aggregate loss last season against Bayern, 0-3 at Barcelona (1-4 over two legs) in 2017/18, and a pair of 1-2 defeats by Paris Saint-Germain in 2015/16.
The exception was the tie with the Parisians in 2014/15. The Blues led 2-1 on aggregate in the second leg at the Bridge after Gary Cahill’s 81st minute finish, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic had already been sent off, but a David Luiz equaliser sent the tie into extra-time.
Today, the VAR would probably have advised a red card for the defender’s off-the-ball elbow on Diego Costa, who was separately denied a clear penalty after a trip by Cavani.
Even then Eden Hazard looked to have won it from the spot after current Blue Brazilian Thiago Silva handled in the penalty area. Disastrously, a second header conceded from a corner – from Thiago Silva – eliminated the Premier League leaders.
Testing times for Spanish football
Home defeats for Barcelona and Sevilla in the opening salvos of the Round of 16 last week suggest the Spanish galleon currently lacks the remarkable firepower it has boasted for years in European combat.
Although La Liga teams have won the Champions League in five of the past seven seasons, Barca were humbled 8-2 by Bayern in last season’s quarter-finals and for the first time since 2007 there were no clubs from Spain in last season’s semi-finals.
Interestingly, their overall performance in recent UEFA campaigns has been outstripped by English clubs, who have so far generated a marginally higher country coefficient this season and in two of the previous three campaigns.
The Arena Nationala Steaua
Spain’s Coronavirus restrictions on travellers from the UK forced Atletico to switch our Round of 16 first leg to the Arena Nationala, Bucharest.
This temporary home holds happy memories for both teams. Atletico lifted the Europa League at the 2011-built stadium in May 2012, 10 days before Chelsea’s Champions League triumph in Munich. The following season the Blues were beaten 1-0 by hosts Steaua Bucharest there, but a year later two-goal Ramires inspired a 4-0 victory on the same pitch.
Champions League round of 16 first leg fixtures – week two
Atletico Madrid v Chelsea 8pm (Bucharest)
Lazio v Bayern Munich 8pm (Rome)
Borussia Monchengladbach v Man City 8pm (Budapest)
Atalanta v Real Madrid 8pm (Bergamo)