In the end it came down to Chelsea’s ambition. While Atlético Madrid were held back by Diego Simeone’s negativity, Thomas Tuchel told his team to play. Liberated, Chelsea stood up to be counted. They let their football do the talking instead of rising to Luis Suárez’s provocation, earning their reward when Olivier Giroud gave them a slender advantage to take back to Stamford Bridge with a special goal.
Tuchel could celebrate a perfect away display in Bucharest, where the tie was played due to Covid-19 restrictions. Chelsea, who have a wonderful chance to progress beyond the last 16 for the first time since 2016, were far more progressive than Atlético. It was a complete performance and the only disappointment is that Jorginho and the outstanding Mason Mount will be suspended for the second leg on 17 March.
It soon became clear that Chelsea needed to have their wits about them. Tuchel knew what to expect from Atlético, talking about their fight and experience before the game, and it was not long before he was marching to the edge of his technical area to urge his players to calm down. The first warning sign came in the opening minute, Mount earning a yellow card for chopping down João Felix as the forward threatened to charge through a wide open space in midfield, while there was a skittish air to Chelsea at the back, typified by Édouard Mendy almost gifting Saúl Ñiguez a calamitous goal when he dithered with a back pass.
Chelsea’s goalkeeper just about got away it, breathing a sigh of relief as the ball rolled away from Saúl, but the errors kept coming. Tuchel cut a worried figure on the touchline. Chelsea were without Thiago Silva in central defence, depriving them of vital nous and quality, and there was another chance for Atlético when Antonio Rüdiger and Marcos Alonso left a bouncing ball to each other deep on the right, allowing Suárez to steal possession before crossing for Thomas Lemar to poke wide at the far post.
It was a reminder that Chelsea could not afford to relax with Suárez around. As the opening period wore on, though, the visitors began to control the game. Callum Hudson-Odoi, given a chance to redeem himself after he was subbed on and off against Southampton last weekend, was keen to impress. The 20-year-old was diligent with his defensive duties at right wing-back, tracking back to deal with Lemar, and he was bright with the ball, pushing high and troubling Atlético by combining with Mount.
Although there was another scare just before half-time, Ángel Correa and Suárez threatening on the break, Chelsea were feeling better. Atlético fell into containment mode, defending with a back six at times. The problem for Chelsea, who ended the first half with 71% possession, was finding a way past one of Europe’s stingiest teams. They spent a lot of time playing in front of Atlético, passing the ball from side to side as they searched for an opening, with the one moment of incision coming when Timo Werner darted in from the left, turning brilliantly before testing Jan Oblak at his near post.
Once again Tuchel found himself craving more precision in the final third. Time and again Chelsea found themselves running down dead ends as Atlético compressed the space. There always seemed to be a red and white shirt in the way. Atlético, so difficult to break down despite the absence of José María Giménez, did not care about entertainment. They were prepared to sit back and wait for opportunities on the break, with their approach summed up by Simeone earning a booking for complaining too much midway through the second half.
It was Felix who carried the threat in the second half for Atlético, acrobatically volleying over before injecting some urgency with a surge down the left. Jorginho brought the youngster down, earning a booking, and will sit out the second leg.
Yet there were few opportunities for Felix to showcase his dazzling skills. Atlético continued to stifle, defending the box and frustrating Chelsea, who needed to increase the tempo. Giroud, who was preferred to Tammy Abraham up front, was struggling to escape his markers and Werner was crowded out when Mount released him at the start of the second half.
Chelsea had nothing to fear, though, and Mount refused to stop probing. In the 67th minute a cross came into the Atletico area from the left. The ball looped up into the air, Mount challenging Mario Hermoso, who inadvertently diverted it to Giroud, who produced a moment of genius, using his left foot to beat Oblak with a stunning overhead kick.
Although the flag went up for offside against Giroud, a lengthy VAR review confirmed the final touch came off Hermoso. Chelsea were rewarded for their patience. Atletico were punished for their lack of ambition.