by Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)
February 22nd, 2021
Chelsea F.C. at Club Atlético de Madrid
Spread: Atlético (Even); O/U: 2
Moneyline: Chelsea +195, Atlético +175, Draw +210
Time/Location: 3:00 ET, Arena Naţională, Bucharest, Hungary
Chelsea (DWWWW); 5th in Premier League
It’s tough to pull better results than Chelsea have under their new boss Thomas Tuchel, but some will debate about the quality of football being played. While results are all that matter at the end of the day, 1-0 struggles against Barnsley, 2-1 spots over Sheffield, and 1-1 dragging draws with Southampton will raise questions about the legitimacy of the results. Is the club improving or is there simply a bump coming from new leadership? It’s tough to say right now, but again, points are points.
What we do know is that Chelsea are healthy for this Champions League tie. The Blues are down only Thiago Silva and are expecting to have Havertz and Pulisic at their disposal, something that can’t usually be said. However, having all these players raring to go means that many will be left out. The wealth of attacking options will need to be sorted out, the midfield adjusted, and the defense decided upon. Tuchel seems to like the 3-4-2-1 formation, but that leaves a lot of attackers on the bench. Abraham or Giroud? Mount and Werner? Havertz and Ziyech? Pulisic and Hudson-Odoi? Alonso or Chilwell? Jorginho or Kovačić? Hell, who is the goalie going to be? My point is that figuring out the right combination of players is a tough task and not figuring it out is the reason why Frank Lampard was fired. Tuchel has to figure it out and quickly.
To me the decisions are progressively more and more difficult as you work up the pitch. I believe you can’t allow Kepa to tend net here despite some better form, you don’t want to risk a mistake. The back three ought to be Azpilicueta, Zouma and Rüdiger. Christensen is a good player but you need more athleticism with the Madrid forwards being what they are. The midfield four will see Reece James, Kante, Kovačić, and Chilwell. James and Kante are natural choices. I prefer Kovačić over Jorginho because he generally distributes better and that will be necessary against a team with such talent and Chilwell brings more creativity, though I wouldn’t Alonso making the start. The attacking midfielders ought to be Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech. Mount has been fantastic all season and has more than enough energy and talent to score and Ziyech is genuinely the best creative threat on Chelsea. He could have a great game pulling the strings with Mount causing dizzying issues. Finally I would play Giroud on top with a short leash. He’s savvy enough to punch through for a goal and even if he isn’t Abraham coming on for the final half hour with fresh legs would be terrifying. Tuchel has a big task ahead of him and whoever he picks will need to be on top of their game to win this match.
Atlético Madrid (LDWDW); 1st in La Liga
Covid is impacting European football on a deeper level than just forcing players out, something Atlético is suffering from, it’s forcing teams out of a match on their home pitch. Instead of playing their football in the Wanda Metropolitano, Atlético are forced to travel to Bucharest, about 2,100 miles from Madrid. In fact, Chelsea have a shorter trip to play than Atléti do. That’s massively impactful. In addition, Los Colchoneros are coming off a demoralizing shutout loss in which their xG was nearly two goals higher than Levante’s despite a 2-0 loss. All of that coming into this battle will make things very difficult for the club.
Regardless, we have to remember who Atlético de Madrid are, especially when coached by Diego Simeone. This team, these dogs of war, are one of the best versions of Atlético Madrid that we’ve ever seen. Luis Suárez is doing his best 2016 Tom Brady impression, scoring 16 goals in the league after being left behind by Barcelona. Marcos Llorente is showing his crosstown ex-employer why they should miss him with eight goals and seven assists, João Félix is finding his groove, and the defense is growing into their roles in an impressive way. Sure, there will be some missing faces tomorrow, Giménez and Carrasco are injured, Trippier is suspended, and Herrera has Covid, but this team is more than capable of pulling off this double-away legged victory.
Simeone has a luxury of players to choose from as well, but his formation and personnel decides itself. The attackers are known, the defense is prepared for their selection and duties, and the many options in the midfield understand their roles and hierarchy. Can you really count out a team bookended by Oblak and Suárez? I won’t.
Analysis and Pick
My first thought when I found out I was writing this match was “under 2.5 goals” and that would still be my thought were it available, but unfortunately for me it isn’t. I was beaten to the punch by the books with the line set at just two goals. Is it weird that I still like that? Regardless, I won’t be touching the total. Both sides are unpredictable in their attacking third and this could just as easily be a goalless draw as it could be a 4-3 thriller either way. I’m taking Atlético Madrid to cover the even spread at -115. The value of the bet isn’t great but I just have too much faith in this side right now. They’re scoring goals, they’re playing fantastic defense, and the midfield has been excellent at dictating how the match moves. Chelsea are capable of winning this match but their attacking play has been truly abysmal recently. There’s little conviction in this side and I think Tuchel won’t want to leave his back line too exposed. It should be the Spaniard’s battle to lose.