Recently I was talking to a Chelsea player about the quarter final second leg against Paris St Germain.
The Blues won 2-0, in extremis, to overturn the 3-1 first leg deficit. Laurent Blanc, as is often the case in big games, didn’t know whether to stick or twist. His team turned out a ‘nothing’ performance – neither defending staunchly enough nor posing meaningful threat and putting Chelsea on the back foot.
I offered up the idea that I’d admired Jose Mourinho’s idea of not replacing Samuel Etoo (Oscar went instead) when both Schürrle and Demba Ba were already on and he was introducing Fernando Torres.
Etoo played a small part in the goal which Ba scored and Mourinho, not exactly a guy known for commitment to all-out attack ended up with four strikers in play – just at the moment when risk was needed in order to win the premium of yet another place in the Champions League semi final.
I was put right. I was informed that every single eventuality had been planned for. If Chelsea were 1-0 up at half time such and such was to happen and the players knew it. If they were losing ‘x’ would happen, if they were 3-0 up and coasting ‘y’ would happen. If they were down to ten men then ‘z’ tactics would be employed and everyone would be clear on specifically what would be required of them, individually, in that instance.
Setting that information and that victory aside for a moment what Mourinho and most of his players can draw on, aside from the best up-to-date scouting and analysis, is vast data banks of experience.
For the Portuguese and the bulk of his players the stress, adrenalin, intensity, mood and so on, which are particular to being in the dream situation of needing a win or score draw in 90 minutes at home to reach the final of the greatest-ever football competition, are nothing new.
At’ A Whole New Level
That’s not the case for Atlético.
Still, I think it’s easy to make a case for Los Colchoneros to go through this tie.
Simeone, his squad, the club execs, the media and the fans are all completely in sync.
They think the same, expect the same things, work/sing/plan with absolute intensity, they show the same levels of naked desire, they all make sacrifices and they are completely unified in the idea that it’s the end, not the means to the end, which matter.
Win pretty, win ugly. But win.
Recognise that theme anyone in SW6? I still think that Atlético are SO reminiscent of Chelsea around 2004/5/6
Full of talent, smart, athletic, brilliantly coached and also brimful of desire.
They’ve got a horse-shoe in their boxing gloves
Just as it was when the young ‘One’ really was ‘special’ it’s great to observe and report on.
Not necessarily aesthetically lovely, not always.
But compelling because we are into basic, eternal human instincts about competing, surviving, winning and evolving.
So, for those reasons, it’s easy to fancy Atlético. An away goal would be an immense boon. Two would put them through. Guaranteed.
They are on an immense unbeaten streak and everyone ‘believes’. The manager is a messianic figure and his word is law.
So many of these things which Mourinho once achieved automatically and Simeone is now proving he has in spades are absolutely NOT the norm in football.
Teams look harmonious, players tell us, tell the media, the manager, tell each other that they are ‘up for it’ that they are ‘ready’ that they ‘understand’ the tactics and the gameplan – but surprsingly often none of it will actually be true.
Mour’ Than A Mere Manager
Men like Mourinho, Ferguson, Ancelotti, Guardiola partly get paid such exorbitant salaries because not only can they come up with the right game plans they can enforce them and get the key players to unify and to believe in what’s required of them. Not just to do it like automatons but to understand and believe.
That genuinely is quite unusual.
More, Simeone has a team which defends all over the pitch. Not only do they press quite well they are rigorously disciplined positionally, they work not in little individual units but in twos and threes. They work for each other.
Atleti also use the ball with cleverness and efficacy. Koke, Arda, Gabi, Sosa, Diego and Filipe Luis all deliver the ball very, very well indeed. Moreover there have been nine different goal-assist givers in the last 13 Atlético matches.
All for one and one for all, no?
But, in my opinion, here’s the rub. Having set them up as a proper ‘team’ it’d be fatuous to suggest that they utterly depend on one man.
The Gift Of No Gabi
However the importance of Gabi’s absence through suspension cannot, I reckon, be overplayed.
He’s Simeone on the pitch. Same brain, same rigour, same win at any cost, same respect from those around him, same ability to produce match winning goals or assists not in mediocre games but big, big moments.
His assist record in the last few weeks has been fabulous, always producing something when Atlético are just, slightly, beginning to look as though mental and physical freshness is at a premium.
He has able deputies in Mario Suarez and Tiago – but Gabi is a horrible loss.
Perhaps this is where Atlético’s greatest test comes. Gabi may not be an experienced Champions League semi final warrior but he might as well be.
He’d have led the troops around him, calmed them down when needed, speeded them up when required – he’d have led by example.
Back to experience. Back to accumulated knowledge. I’m sure the fact that Mourinho admires and wants Diego Costa for next season made Chelsea fans watch the ‘new’ Spain striker closely.
If they don’t watch La Liga regularly perhaps they were underwhelmed. Costa makes and takes chances of his own but he is also, heavily, the product of superb service from Arda, Koke, Gabi, Villa and Filipe.
Close Down Providers and Conquer
Last week Chelsea snuffed out the providers and so the finisher had scraps to feed off.
Ahead of this game Costa said, authoritatively, that Chelsea ‘would be forced to come out and play a bit more because they were at home this time’.
Perhaps. Was that the voice of experience or supposition?
How well briefed are all Simeone’s players about what to expect?
What do do in certain situations. How to react. When to push the pedal to the floor, when to… well, Kenny Rogers covered it best in ‘The Gambler’. Hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away .. run.
Are Atlético going to be as well briefed and prepared as Chelsea?
For these reasons I suspect it’ll need Atleti’s best performance of the season in order to go through. They’ve been remarkable these last few years, regular trophy winners and the Europa league has taught them, above all, how to peak in midweek and regularly produce wins, any old how, at the weekend.
Hence their heady Champions League/Liga positions.
But I reckon they’ll be tested to their very limits by an experienced, savvy, hungry and unified Mourinho side.
Ready, Set-Piece, Go
I think there’s a little bit of value in looking at Atleti set plays. They spend an inordinate amount of time practicing them. They are Spain’s most regular scorers from the dead ball and without Gabi, Koke remains an absolutely wonderful delivery boy when he’s crossing or passing off his right foot.
Raúl Garcia, Godín, Miranda, Costa are all well above average in the air and I’d expect Mark Schwarzer to be properly tested in his timing at coming for crosses.
At a guess I’d have thought that there’s no more than three goals in the match, much more likely two and that for all I’ve bemoaned the absence of Gabi Chelsea may need to score twice in order to meet Real Madrid in Lisbon next month.
Comedy value? The novelty bet? Simeone’s number two, Germán ‘Mono’ Burgos once threatened to re-arrange Mourinho’s features during a particularly heated Clásico.
Burgos is, without too much exaggeration, a character who makes Mourinho appear like Ghandi. If you can get decent odds on Burgos being sent off. Take them. All day long.
You can follow Graham Hunter on Twitter on @BumperGraham