Last night’s Champions League semi-final first leg between Atletico Madrid and Chelsea was never going to be a goal-fest and pre-match predictions that Jose Mourinho would park a bus of double-decker proportions at Vicente Calderon proved prophetically accurate.
Mourinho will count the achievement of a goalless draw away to the leaders of La Liga as a success. Effective and talented as Chelsea are, their chances of securing a result at Vicente Calderon playing expansive and attacking football would have been slim.
To that extent, his ploy worked, but with Atleti unable to play their natural game to the full – Diego Simeone refused to rise to the invitation to attack Chelsea – a stalemate always looked the likely outcome.
After 90 minutes of two intense counter-attacking sides largely cancelling each other out in what Marca described as “an intense but ugly game,” both Coaches will be entitled to claim the advantage going into next Wednesday’s decider at Stamford Bridge.
Simeone’s men monopolised possession and, although disappointing in attack and lacking end product, denied the Londoners a potentially vital away goal. Conversely, Mourinho will claim the high ground in a game between two evenly-matched sides, having nullified the threat of Diego Costa in front of the intimidating Rojiblancos supporters.
The goalless draw at Vicente Calderon was Atleti’s sixth consecutive clean sheet and their similarity to Chelsea and the lack of clear-cut chances point to a second-leg that is likely to be every bit as closely fought.
In that sense, Simeone can draw strength from the manner in which his men stifled and then eliminated Barcelona in the quarter-final, and will need to reprise it.
Los Rojiblancos’ crucial 1-0 second-leg win over the Catalans typified the way in which Atleti can relentlessly grind down opponents of quality, though they had nevertheless netted 22 times in their previous 10 games. The second leg against Chelsea is likely to be similarly attritional, but a goal – and one may not be enough – will be essential.
In addition to Fernando Torres returning to his roots, much of the pre-match hype had surrounded Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois playing against his parent club, but the Belgian was almost a peripheral figure as defensive-minded Chelsea focused on frustrating Atleti while creating little in front of goal themselves.
The spotlight was also on Costa, partly because he has been so prolific for Atletico but mainly because he has been widely touted as next season’s solution to Mourinho’s quest for a reliable goalscorer.
The Brazilian held his own against John Terry in the aggression stakes but his overall contribution was disappointing. Atleti failed to trouble replacement goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, on the pitch as an early replacement for the injured Petr Cech.
Both sides will need to break ranks in next week’s second leg and Atletico will need to display not only their counter-attacking prowess but also their ability to translate that into the form that has seen them become the Champions League’s highest-scoring side this season.
It could well be another chess match, but to reach the final Simeone needs to turn stalemate into checkmate.