Two down, one to go. On paper, the last week couldn’t have gone much better for Chelsea. Jose Mourinho may still divide opinion like few others in the world of football, but to come away from crunch matches at Atletico Madrid and Liverpool with a pair of clean sheets is something that deserves recognition.
This week, we will see exactly how much the former one is worth. Against Diego Simeone’s side, who have kept six clean sheets in a row themselves in La Liga and Champions League, Chelsea have no margin for error.
The dispute of the validity of Mourinho’s tactics at Anfield is strange. Despite Brendan Rodgers’ barb that “putting 10 players right on your 18-yard box is not difficult to coach” (as per Chris Bevan of BBC Sport here), Chelsea required considerable discipline to execute their plan.
In waiting for Liverpool to come onto them, they arguably conserved energy that will be much needed this week. Maybe it wouldn’t be edifying to watch football played like that every week, but it defies belief that some are suggesting that Chelsea actually do so.
The same applies to Mourinho’s tactics at the Calderon, though the context was quite different. The examples of why a 0-0 draw away from home is not always what it seems in the knockout stages of the Champions League are myriad; holders Manchester United tumbling to Real Madrid at Old Trafford in 2000 after a goalless stalemate at the Bernabeu being one of the most pertinent.
Even if Mourinho claims it was not Chelsea’s aim to merely smother in Spain last week, the facts say otherwise. They had five shots at the Calderon (to Atletico’s 25). Most clearly, there was never a genuine will to offer any sort of support for Fernando Torres, with Ramires the only player to even occasionally break from midfield to get close to him.
Mourinho’s concerns were understandable, with Atletico’s ability to counter. Yet would Willian, used in Madrid almost as an auxiliary left-back in front of the excellent Ashley Cole, not have been better employed making more inroads into enemy territory, committing overstretched defenders and drawing fouls?
With an away goal, Chelsea would have been facing less of a threat of being caught on the break at home. Diego Costa, speaking this week at the side of his Atleti predecessor Radamel Falcao, suggested that “they will have to come out a little bit more” at Stamford Bridge (by Marca, in Spanish). At some point, they will—and Atletico will relish it.
Mourinho’s achievements in the Champions League over the last decade are not up for debate. Yet he has not always had it his own way in semi-finals. The Portuguese had participated in the competition’s last four an impressive seven times before this season, but won only two.
That pair of semi-final successes represent considerable exceptions, of course, with Porto and Internazionale going on to win the tournament on both occasions.
It will not, of course, be easy for Atletico to pick Chelsea off, and the suspension of their inspirational captain Gabi may weigh heavily. As well as breaking up opposition attacks in front of his central defenders, his long passing helps to launch breaks forward.
Yet there are other creative avenues open to them, notably through Koke and Arda Turan’s ability to feed Costa. There is also their mastery of set pieces to consider; another of the ways in which these two sides so closely resemble each other.
Chelsea, with their experience, remain favourites for a place in Lisbon, but it is a harder task than it might be without an away goal as security. Let’s see if Mourinho’s real gamble of late season, rather than his team selection at Anfield, pays off.