Chelsea’s stubborn performance at the Vicente Calderon last week gives them a huge advantage heading into Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge.
The Blues soaked up wave after wave of Atletico Madrid pressure in the Spanish capital in the first leg, but their tactics paid off as they came away with the 0-0 scoreline that they’d played for.
It does mean, though, that it’s all to play for in west London on Wednesday, with a thriller expected as both teams go all out to secure their place in the Champions League final.
Below, we take a look at the key battles of the evening and assess who will emerge victorious in the race to Lisbon.
Eden Hazard vs. Juanfran
The big news for Chelsea is the return of their mercurial Belgian Eden Hazard to the setup.
The 23-year-old has been struggling with a calf injury of late but announced on Sunday that he is expecting to return to the fold.
Per Squawka Football, Hazard revealed at the PFA end-of-season awards, where he scooped the Young Player of the Year award, that he was ready for the vital matchup:
“I’m fine for Wednesday, I can play. I watched the Liverpool game, which was difficult for me. I prefer to be on the pitch but the team was brilliant.”
Hazard has scored 14 goals this season, with two in the Champions League, according to WhoScored.com, and he is looking to live up to his tag as one of the most exciting talents in Europe on Wednesday.
Standing in his way will be right-back Juanfran, who recently slammed the Blues’ first-leg performance—per Paul Brown of the Daily Star:
The score in Madrid was unjust. We deserved at least one goal because we were the only team on the pitch trying to score one. Everyone saw how conservative Chelsea were but really it was sad the system imposed by the coach. They played for a 0-0 and waited for us to make a mistake. Goals decide games but at this moment we deserve to be in the final.
Juanfran and the rest of the Atletico defence were relatively untroubled in the first leg in Madrid, but the Spaniard will undoubtedly have his work cut out on Wednesday with Hazard back in the side.
The Belgium international has endless ability on the ball and also has the pace advantage over Juanfran hurtling down the left wing, which could prove crucial in the dying embers of the match.
If Hazard can pick up from where he left off before his injury, then Juanfran will be in for a long night at Stamford Bridge.
Whether the Blues can find a way to progress to the Champions League final remains to be seen, but if they can, then the newly crowned PFA Young Player of the Year will undoubtedly have a lot to do with it.
Gary Cahill vs. Diego Costa
While Atletico striker Diego Costa looks odds on to be a Chelsea player next season, per James Dickenson of The Express he won’t be going easy on his potential future employers on Wednesday evening.
The Spanish striker is La Liga’s second-highest scorer this season, sandwiched in between the best of the best—Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—as WeAreMadrid10 revealed:
His goalscoring exploits have been the biggest storyline in Atletico’s magnificent season; but then again, as have the defensive exploits of Gary Cahill in Chelsea’s.
Cahill has been outstanding for the Blues this season, and he kept Costa unfamiliarly quiet during the first leg meeting with yet another solid performance.
While the Atletico frontman has the ability to turn a game in an instant, Cahill always appears to be one step ahead in the heart of the Chelsea defence and will likely deal with the threat of Costa once again.
The Englishman recently spoke of his desire to rediscover the spirit on 2012 on Wednesday, despite several key players having to take to the sidelines—per Tony Stenson of the Daily Star:
It is a huge blow to lose so many players. But we are looking back at how we coped with a similar situation on the way to winning it in 2012 and it gives us confidence. We have the squad to cope with it. We seem to be able to grind out results when we need to in this competition. We’re really, really close to the final now, we have one more game at home and have to give it everything we’ve got but we can’t afford to think too far ahead.
If Cahill can once again produce a stellar performance in defence then he may just get his wish, as will the Special One, Jose Mourinho.
While Diego Simeone’s team have enjoyed a fantastic 2013/14 campaign, doing a job on Chelsea in their own back yard may just be one step too far.
Mourinho has proved in recent weeks that he has the tactical brilliance to outsmart even the most exciting of teams, and that may just happen once again on Wednesday.
Prediction: Chelsea 2-1 Atletico Madrid