For Chelsea, the Champions League has always been the holy grail.
From Roman Abramovich’s arrival in 2003 to finally sealing continental glory nine years later, there is simply no competition quite like the Champions League. Yet, for a prize so appealing and coveted, the Blues have not been up to the challenge for years.
Since their Munich triumph in 2012, Chelsea have only once progressed past the round of 16 in six attempts, against Didier Drogba’s Galatasaray seven years ago. It is a startling stat for the west London elites, who have faltered year after year in the knockout stages.
If there is a benefit of the doubt, Chelsea have faced some formidable opponents at this stage of the competition. Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and, most recently, Bayern Munich have all slain the Blues, dispatching them with real ease and in ruthless style.
But this year, while the challenge remains stern, Chelsea have a fighting chance.
Atlético Madrid are the opponents in 2021, and they mean business. Los Colchoneros are top of La Liga with a game in hand, beaten just once all season at home – albeit in their most recent outing against Levante – and going for a sixth quarter-final appearance in eight years. Put simply, Atléti are a formidable force on the continental stage.
Chelsea fans certainly would have hoped for a more favourable draw after winning Group E, but to be the best, you must beat the best.
They face familiar opponents in Atlético – these two met five times last decade, with the Blues emerging victorious just once. There is bad blood between the capital foes, boiled over Super Cup goalfests and Champions League thrillers. In fact, the last time Chelsea progressed past the round of 16, it was Atlético who denied them a place in the final.
Diego Simeone’s men will fight tooth and nail to reach the final eight, and they are not a test to be taken lightly at all. Spearheaded by Luis Suárez and João Félix, anchored by Saúl Ñiguez and guarded by Jan Oblak, this Atléti team is full of world-class stars who can hurt the Blues.
The odds seem stacked against Chelsea – the last time that was the case, the Champions League trophy wore blue and white ribbons.
It will not be easy, but they can prevail.
While Atlético are in form, the extenuating circumstances play into the Londoners’ hands. COVID-19 restrictions mean that the first leg has been moved 3,000km to Bucharest’s National Arena, expelling Atléti’s home advantage. For a team who have been near invincible at the Wanda Metropolitano, it is a costly blow for the Spaniards.
Under Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea have been in their best run of form since early December, unbeaten in seven outings across all competitions. The German has breathed new life into his previously depleted players, reflected by their return to the top four race in the Premier League.
Who better to guide the Blues in Europe than Tuchel, whose last continental engagement saw him take PSG to their first ever Champions League Final six months earlier? Chelsea are a new team with a new purpose, and under the guidance and influence of Tuchel, they are not to be undermined in Europe.
Chelsea have long disappointed in the Champions League since their 2012 victory, and with the exception of their two Europa League triumphs, they have not launched a serious challenge for Europe’s premier club competition since.
Losing on away goals to PSG. Succumbing to a Lionel Messi masterclass. Destroyed by bloodthirsty Bayern.
With every defeat, every embarrassment, every humbling in Europe, the desire for continental success has grown stronger and stronger at Stamford Bridge. Now, with their strongest squad and finest manager in years, the pieces have been coming together bit by bit for Chelsea.
There has not been a better opportunity for Chelsea to perform in the Champions League. Once a European goliath feared across the continent, they have lost that aura with every passing year. But if the Blues can send out a message and perform across the two legs, that long-lost status can be revived in the Tuchel era.
It is going to be a typically tough clash in the Champions League round of 16, as Tuchel’s Chelsea do battle with the Spanish leaders. No one said it would be easy; Chelsea know that. But the time has arrived to remind Europe why they are a force to be reckoned with. Why they must be feared under Tuchel. Why they are the Pride of London.
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