Fresh from a week that has seen his side achieve exactly what they set out to do in both their Champions League semi-final first leg and their crucial top of the table clash with Liverpool, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho could perhaps be forgiven if he were to be bemused at the level of criticism his side has taken over their style of play.
The Portuguese manager has come out fighting in defence of his side’s style of play, despite critics queuing up to dismiss his side as parking the bus. Arjen Robben was the latest to add his voice to the condescending sneering over Chelsea, who take on Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their semi-final on Wednesday, telling reporters that the first leg of the tie had “nothing to do with football.”
It's probably safe to say that the Bayern winger won’t be watching his former side’s semi-final tonight then. The 0-0 first leg draw was in many ways expected in a tie that has thrown up an intriguing tactical battle between Mourinho and Atletico coach Diego Simeone.
The two sides have the lowest goals conceded per game in this season’s competition, meaning that Wednesday’s clash could also be a low scoring affair.
Atletico travel to Stamford Bridge as the only unbeaten side in the competition. They are likely to be ruing the missed opportunities that saw their first leg dominance count for nothing but a draw. However, they will be encouraged by their performance in Madrid and confident of progression to the final.
The first leg saw Chelsea pinned deep into their own half for much of the game, with almost 20 percent of their touches coming inside their own penalty area and 67 clearances being made by the away side; over three times the 20 made by Atletico.
As they did in the 2-0 win over Liverpool five days later, Chelsea sat deep and blocked the middle of the pitch and snuffed out Atletico’s central players and looked for the counter-attack.
Being at home may put the onus on Chelsea to push forward in the second leg, but they are unlikely to change their style too much and the game may well be one of few goals.
Mourinho’s is a side built for the counter-attack, as shown by the two results at Atletico and Liverpool. Struggling to break down some of the weaker sides in the Premier League has been their undoing this season and Chelsea are more comfortable counter-attacking than dictating the game.
The first leg saw Chelsea players go past their opponents on 12 occasions to Atletico’s five. Content to defend deep before breaking like a coiled spring, tonight could also be such a tactical affair as Chelsea look to breach the competition’s tightest defence.
If they are to do so, then they will have to be more ambitious going forward than they were in the first leg. Chelsea created just two chances at the Vicente Calderon, to their hosts’ 15 key passes.
Wide areas could be the key to progression to face Real Madrid, with Chelsea needing to emulate their first leg defensive display. John Terry and Gary Cahill are comfortable with balls into the penalty area, but Chelsea’s throttling of central areas meant that Atletico put in 44 crosses into the Chelsea box, many from deep areas.
If Mourinho can restrict the away side to such deliveries from deep then Chelsea will have gone a long way to securing the win they need. Chelsea dealt well with the threats from Atletico’s full-backs, who have created 23 chances between them in the Champions League this season, restricting the effectiveness of Atletico’s attempts to create width.
Ramires and Willian started in wide midfield areas in the first leg, with Ramires making three tackles on the Chelsea right, two of which came on left-back Filipe Luis.
The Brazilian is likely to start in a more central role in the second leg, with Mourinho missing much of the midfield unit that started a week ago. John Obi-Mikel and Frank Lampard are both suspended, meaning that Ramires and David Luiz are the most probable pairing.
That is unless Mourinho springs a surprise and plays Marco Van Ginkel, this will lead to a tactical tweak, with a 4-2-3-1 formation more likely than the 4-3-3 deployed in Madrid.
Ramires and Luiz are solid enough defensively, with Ramires topping the charts for tackles made per 90 minutes out of the three potential starters and the men they are replacing. Luiz has also excelled defensively, with 2.46 interceptions, although his unfortunate own goal in Paris does provide one blot on his copybook.
Going forward, Chelsea may miss Lampard’s dead-ball ability and chance creation. He has created more chances per 90 minutes in the Champions League this season than Ramires, Luiz, Mikel and Van Ginkel combined and has been trusted by Mourinho with a role in all 11 of the club’s Champions League games this season.
At 0-0 the tie is perfectly poised and Mourinho is 90 minutes away from pulling off the perfect week with a depleted squad. The game is almost impossible to call, with Atletico top of La Liga but Chelsea renowned for their performances in the big games.
Just one of Chelsea’s last 11 Champions League knockout ties has ended in defeat, while they have won their last five home knockout games in the Champions League.
It may not be pretty, but the game will provide a tactical battle that Mourinho and Simeone will relish.
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