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