Feeling blue Chelsea could face Barca or PSG af­ter Atletico grab draw

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER at Stam­ford Bridge

There have been tougher days for An­to­nio Conte at Chelsea but as his gri­mac­ing and curs­ing turned to mo­men­tary de­spair you could tell that the man who leaves noth­ing to chance felt that he might just have made a mis­take in fail­ing to claim top spot in his Cham­pi­ons League group.

Sec­ond place in Group C means that Chelsea will face one from Barcelona, Paris Saint-ger­main, Be­sik­tas and pos­si­bly Sevilla if they top Liver­pool’s group tonight, which is quite an ar­ray of op­po­si­tion ly­ing in wait. Roma are the group win­ners and Conte’s team might have lost this game, com­ing from be­hind af­ter Saul Niguez had cap­i­talised on some in­dif­fer­ent mark­ing at a cor­ner to plun­der a sec­ond half goal.

Af­ter­wards Conte made the ar­gu­ment that first or sec­ond makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence – with first place yield­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of fac­ing Real Madrid, Ju­ven­tus or Bay­ern Mu­nich – but there is some­thing that feels re­as­sur­ing about top spot. It is the best place to start the knock­out stages of the com­pe­ti­tion in Fe­bru­ary, how­ever hard the draw might be and it con­firms in the minds of the play­ers that they should be the favourites for the quar­ter-fi­nals.

“It’s not a prob­lem who we get,” Eden Hazard said af­ter­wards with the kind of at­ti­tude that only the most ab­surdly gifted foot­ballers in the world can have. “We are a top team too,” he said. “We can do any­thing.” He is right in that when he is on his game it looks like Chelsea can do any­thing and it was Hazard’s twin­kling feet that brought his side back into the game and very nearly won it for them against Diego Sime­one’s play­ers.

The Bel­gian had been send­ing de­fend­ers in the wrong di­rec­tion for most of the night be­fore he flit­ted down the left on 75 min­utes and stroked in the cross that the for­mer Manch­ester City de­fender Ste­fan Savic put into his own goal. There were chances to win it in the clos­ing stages when first Al­varo Mo­rata and then his re­place­ment Michy Bat­shuayi could not beat Jan Oblak and the Chelsea man­ager was left to be­rate his own bench in frus­tra­tion.

When he looks back on their Cham­pi­ons League progress this year, Conte will know that it was Chelsea’s chas­ten­ing 3-0 de­feat in Rome on Hal­loween that was the root of this mi­nor group stage mal­func­tion, which has left them sec­ond and wor­ry­ing about their op­po­nents in the knock­out round.

Start­ing for Atletico Madrid was Fer­nando Tor­res, back at Stam­ford Bridge for one more time, bid­ding a fond sec­ond-half farewell with an ova­tion from the Chelsea fans who liked his un­stint­ing ef­fort but could hardly pre­tend that they missed him. The ab­sence that loomed over both sides was Diego Costa, who can­not play for Atletico un­til he is reg­is­tered in Jan­uary.

As Roma pre­vailed 1-0 against the Azer­bai­jan side Qarabag to win the group, so Atletico slipped into the Europa League. They knocked out Chelsea in 2014 and over the years they have had suc­cess while los­ing many of their best play­ers, with ev­ery chance that An­toine Griez­mann will be among them next sum­mer, al­though this was a mediocre per­for­mance by his stan­dards. Atletico were 30 min­utes late ar­riv­ing and the of­fi­cial team sheet had them two play­ers short of a reg­u­la­tion seven.

They started with Tor­res in at­tack, back at Stam­ford Bridge for the first time since he played 17 min­utes as a sub­sti­tute against Nor­wich City in May 2014. In the end he claimed the as­sist for Saul’s goal.

Chelsea cre­ated lim­ited chances in the first half: a shot from Da­vide Zap­pa­costa that al­most wrong­footed Oblak, and a vol­ley from Al­varo Mo­rata that was pushed over

the bar by the Slove­nian. In mid­field N’golo Kante was the usual master of the tackle and the break­away, gen­er­ally keep­ing Atletico’s counter-at­tack­ing at bay. As it was, Atletico had marginally more of the ball in the first half.

Hav­ing looked as if they might be build­ing up to some­thing in the first half, Chelsea were much less im­pres­sive af­ter the break. There was a run from Hazard that left the de­fend­ers Savic and Jose Maria Gimenez go­ing to the wrong place, but once again noth­ing to show for it all at the end while Atletico bided their time and awaited the break­through.

Be­fore Tor­res came off, his ded­i­ca­tion to the cause had seen him head a cor­ner from Koke into no­mans’-land at the back post. It was chiefly un­oc­cu­pied by a blue shirt be­cause Tiemoue Bakayoko had failed to track the run of Saul, who had a free header to guide in past Cour­tois.

It forced Conte to re­spond and he brought on first Pe­dro, for the cul­pa­ble Bakayoko, and then Wil­lian. Chris­tensen had a header saved by Oblak from Cesc Fabre­gas’ cross. It was an­other Fabre­gas cross that led to the equaliser, this time from the right. The ball was cleared as far as Hazard on the edge of the box and he darted in, struck a ball across goal that Savic in­ad­ver­tently turned past Oblak. No one could de­liver a fraught Conte the win­ner, and for the first time in a while he had to set­tle for sec­ond.

Up and over: Saul Niguez puts Atletico Madrid ahead at Stam­ford Bridge

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