It took 69 minutes, with almost three more VAR reflections for the goal to arrive, but when it did follow, through the magic of Olivier Giroud, aided by Mario Hermoso’s misappropriation, there could be little debate about whether it was deserved.
Chelsea’s business trip to Bucharest was carried out with minimal crowds. This was by no means a classic match, but Thomas Tuchel’s game plan was executed effectively against the Atletico Madrid team, which was conservative until the mistake.
Guests had long moments of passivity, spells where it was questionable whether anyone in light blue could provide a killer passport to tear down Atletico’s seemingly invincible wall, but this will always be a night to achieve a positive result away from home was the only important target.
When the draw was made on December 14, ten days before Tuchel left Paris Saint-Germain and more than a month before Frank Lampard’s dismissal, it was obvious that Atletico would try to advance and make things difficult for the team that has struggled against the low block since the days of Maurizio Sarri.
Tuchel described it as a “fantastic result and a fantastic goal”, although Atletico was a big disappointment. Sitting in numbers, Diego Simeone’s team barely put a glove on their opponents when they tamed the counterattack.
In contrast, Chelsea showed courage, balancing their commitment to dominance with possession of a secure defensive performance in which Andreas Christensen stood out.
Edouard Mendy, despite an early nervous moment with the ball in his feet after a relaxed quarterback, didn’t have to save, and a defense that was four-fifths of the one Barcelona educated in March 2018 had little valuable work to do. Joao Felix was flat before he was hooked, old enemy Luis Suarez was undone.
While Atletico may rightly point out a waiver of domestic advantage and an awkward move to the Romanian capital, whose hands were forced by the Spanish government, the importance of this result from Chelsea’s point of view should not be underestimated despite being in neutral territory.
The last time they won an away game in the away Champions League was against Benfica in March 2012. Callum Hudson-Odoi was 11, Mason Mount would probably be 13 and watching television at home with his father.
In the competition that Roman Abramovich gives above all, the club from West London has disappointed since winning the competition in Munich nine years ago. At the time, he ate through seven managers, while Atletico created a habit for him in the later stages.
The equalizer is by no means over and Liverpool may, among other things, offer warnings about Atletico’s strength on away legs, but Chelsea are halfway there. While renewing their acquaintances on March 17, they played four more games in the Premier League, and Tuchel will learn a lot more about his team.
The head coach has overseen many improvements since replacing Lampard last month, but the jury remains on staff numbers when it comes to finding minor gaps in a tightly filled defense.
The sterile approach of Jorginho (who will be suspended in the return leg) and Mate Kovačić’s double pivot is still worrying, the collective game in the last third is still going on, but the depth on their bench can be unparalleled and relentless pressure from Mount, Hudson-Odoi and Tim Werner meant is that Atletico often couldn’t even start a counter this evening.
All the evidence suggests that Chelsea will further improve over the next three weeks, while Atletico could focus their energy on the remaining top of La Liga if their current rut continues.