There was a moment just before the hour between Chelsea and Atlético Madrid when Diego Simeone, prowling the side of the pitch all dressed in black, shouted at his players: “Don’t leave the game.” Listening to his command, crystal clear and echoing round Stamford Bridge, watching what was happening or, more accurately, what wasn’t happening, you couldn’t help but think: leave the game? They’d have to get into it first.
Behind him, the man who really had left it was sitting on the steps of the stand wearing an ironic smile and only one sock, pulling at the other one. Luis Suárez had gone 25 games and 2,182 minutes without scoring away in the Champions League and, removed now, wasn’t going to end that run here. In front of him, trailing 1-0 on the night, 2-0 on aggregate, Atlético’s remaining men mostly continued what they had been doing: chasing a ball they couldn’t reach. Always playing “catch-up”, in the words of Koke Resurrección.
Suárez’s was the third substitution Simone had made and a fourth followed. Mario Hermoso, Moussa Dembélé, Ángel Correa and Thomas Lemar came; Renan Lodi, Yannick Carrasco, Suárez and Kieran Trippier went. Formations came and went too, while Marcos Llorente performed a tour of every position. Despite Suárez’s record, removing their top scorer seemed a strange choice for a team desperate for goals. And as the coach went through his bench, it sometimes felt a bit random, as if he was determined to try something, anything.
Atlético needed two and didn’t get one. By the time they reacted, it was late. A fortnight ago, when João Félix had celebrated a goal at Villarreal with vindication rather than joy, Simeone had said that he welcomes players who rebel. Momentarily the Portuguese did, and he has much to rebel about, a teenager held back and angry at a world that doesn’t understand him. With 15 minutes left he brought a sharp save from Édouard Mendy. Another shot skidded wide. And then he cut inside and shot against Mendy’s palms.
That last opportunity, though, was the 92nd minute and in the 93rd Emerson Palmieri ended the contest with his first touch. There will be no puppy called Stamford Bridge to join the dog named Anfield at Llorente’s house.
By then, the visitors were down to 10 men after Stefan Savic had been sent off, eventually heading down a long, dark tunnel that invited you to insert your own metaphor. He went past the gardening equipment, still swearing. “Piece of shit,” he had said as he finally left. He was talking about the decision to hand him a red card, but from Atlético’s perspective perhaps it could have applied it to the whole tie. Only this wasn’t exactly a piece of shit and it wasn’t a hammering: it wasn’t bad as such, it was just … nothing much. And maybe that’s worse.
Atlético had first set foot in the Chelsea area inside 90 seconds, seeking to press high. Briefly, the front four had done so. But beyond them, a hole had opened up. Chelsea found it and quickly took control. “They came through that,” Simeone said. “They found spaces; we weren’t able to do what we wanted to do,” Koke conceded. When Trippier’s cross was headed away on the half hour, Chelsea took the lead too, dashing from one end to the other, away from Trippier’s flailing grasp, to get the opener. And that was that.
Losing to Chelsea is not so unusual. Atlético were in an almost impossible position – only nine teams in history had overturned a home results like theirs – and since Thomas Tuchel took over, his team have gone 13 unbeaten. In 11 of them, they kept clean sheets. This is a genuinely good side and Atlético were twice caught on the break. They could also point to a possible penalty, maybe even two – on Carrasco and Suárez – although they didn’t, Simeone rapidly responding “no, no, no, there’s no excuses”.
But it was more than that, more even than Atlético’s recent run: they have won only three of their past 10 games, their lead cut to four points in La Liga and their manager talking of the need to “reset” for Sunday against Alavés. There will be work to do, damage to be mended. Reset: some may wonder if they need to do exactly that as they contemplate the lack of ambition – more in the first leg than here – and the questions that poses, the doubts about their identity. The feeling lingers that this is not the football some of these players are looking for, nor the football Europe demands.
There is a possibility that when people ask, “Is that all you’ve got?” the answer may be yes. At the end of this game, you were left not with the detail but broader brush strokes, wider conclusions, a feeling that Chelsea were so comfortable, so superior, so in control of it all, physically on a different plain; that Llorente, much quicker and stronger than everyone in Spain, suddenly looked so normal; that every loose ball was met by a blue shirt. Sometimes reality brings resignation when it needs rebellion, or maybe deeper reflection. It is what it is; it is that Atlético had lost not just the tie but both games, as Barcelona and Sevilla had done, and always seemed likely to. Stay in the game, Simeone had implored them, as if they ever had been.
Asked afterwards for an analysis, there was no hesitation. “Well,” he replied, “they were worthy winners.”