Atletico will be big test: Tuchel

German acknowledges challenge posed by La Liga leaders and experienced coach Simeone

Chelsea will face Spanish opposition in Europe again this season in La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid, having met Sevilla in the group, but at a neutral venue in Romania owing to travel restrictions for UK teams.
Chelsea will face Spanish opposition in Europe again this season in La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid, having met Sevilla in the group, but at a neutral venue in Romania owing to travel restrictions for UK teams.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel warned his side that they face a "big test", even if they may be meeting Atletico Madrid at the right time.

The La Liga leaders fell to a 2-0 defeat to Levante at the weekend, failing to keep a clean sheet for the seventh straight game in all competitions, the first time that has happened under Diego Simeone.

Atletico have been shorthanded due to injuries and coronavirus-related woes, and are unable to host Chelsea in their Wanda Metropolitano Stadium today due to a ban on flights from the United Kingdom in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus.

Instead, the first leg of the Champions League last-16 tie will be played in Bucharest. Atletico won the Europa League there in 2012.

Tuchel said it is "obvious" the Blues have an advantage playing the first leg in a neutral venue, but knows the challenge ahead.

Chelsea have not won a single knockout Champions League tie since losing to Atletico in the semi-finals of the 2013-14 season.

"It's a big test. They are an experienced club at his level, an experienced coach," he said yesterday. "Hopefully it brings out the best in us. We will do things our way, they will do things their way. It's clear what you get when you play Atletico: fighting, experience, a team with a good mentality."

There is little doubt the two clubs have different approaches. In contrast to Chelsea's model of splurging on talent, Atletico's rise over the past decade has been built around Simeone. Since he took charge in 2011, Chelsea have had seven permanent managers.

While the Blues spent £220 million (S$409 million) last summer, Simeone has seen his sides dismantled and rebuilt time and again. Chelsea were among the predators in taking Diego Costa and Filipe Luis from their 2013-14 La Liga title-winning team.

A poor spell under club legend and Tuchel's predecessor Frank Lampard left owner Roman Abramovich deciding a change of manager was necessary to salvage a top-four finish.

The German has overseen a change of fortunes at Stamford Bridge, winning four of his first six league matches that has seen his side move up to fifth. And Blues captain Cesar Azpilicueta hailed his new coach's timely arrival.

The defender told Mundo Deportivo: "Six weeks ago we weren't at our best. Now with Tuchel everything has improved... Although the Premier League has nothing to do with it, reaching the Champions League on a roll is good news.

"The solidity has recovered, fewer opportunities are granted and that speaks of the work of the group, from the first attacker to the last defender. With the new coach we try to control the games with and without the ball."

With the pandemic causing fixture congestion, teams are mindful of slipping up. Even holders Bayern Munich are showing chinks in their armour ahead of their first leg at Lazio after dropping points and leaking goals in the Bundesliga.

The Bavarian giants - who have won six titles in the past nine months - crashed to a 2-1 league defeat at Eintracht Frankfurt on Saturday, having been held to a 3-3 home draw by strugglers Arminia Bielefeld last Monday.

"We know what has happened in the past days," Bayern boss Hansi Flick said. "Against Lazio I want us to be there as a team from the start.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2021, with the headline 'Atletico will be big test: Tuchel'. Subscribe