Soccer

UEFA Champions League bold predictions: Three keys to Atletico Madrid-Chelsea clash in round of 16

Chelsea and Atletico Madrid resume their intriguing rivalry Tuesday when the two face off in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League round of 16 tie in Bucharest. You can see all the action on CBS All Access. The Blues were sent out of the Champions League in the semifinals in 2014 by Diego Costa and company, but responded by buying the Spain international and several other players in a relationship where both Chelsea and Atletico battled to get one over the other in the transfer market as much as on the pitch.

A first meeting between these two since 2017 promises to be a serious test for Chelsea, though perhaps not as difficult as it might have seemed when the draw was made two months ago. Atletico still occupy top spot in La Liga as they did then but have seemed to struggle defensively of late while Thomas Tuchel has enjoyed an undefeated start to his tenure over the past month.

Craving more coverage of the Champions League? The ¡Que Golazo! podcast has a full preview of Tuesday’s action. Listen below:

Below we identify the key issues of the game… and make some bold predictions for what will happen:

Can we bet on under zero goals?

The first week of the Champions League was everything we could have hoped for. The first four matches brought 15 goals and a host of thrilling attacking football. Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid? Don’t be so sure.

It is not that both these sides do not possess quality in abundance in the final third. This will be a game that pits the likes of Joao Felix and Luis Suarez against the $200 million frontline the Blues assembled in last summer’s transfer window. However both sides have shown plenty of signs that this will be a far more cagey affair than the likes of Barcelona vs. Paris Saint Germain or Sevilla vs. Borussia Dortmund.

Atletico Madrid have, of course, been synonymous with defense under manager Diego Simeone and have shown little proclivity to allow their opponents shots on goal this season. This team has faced just over 9 shots per game on their goal in La Liga with Jan Oblak forced into less than three saves on average every time he takes the pitch.

Of course one might note that the defense has not been quite as resolute of late. They have kept just one clean sheet in 2020 and fell to only their second league defeat of the season on Saturday, a 2-0 defeat to Levante that suddenly revived a title race that seemed destined to end with Atleti as champions. Meanwhile both Celta Vigo and Cadiz have found the net twice against Simeone’s side in 2021.

Furthermore, the underlying numbers suggest that the wobble at the Wanda Metropolitano ought to correct itself soon. Before January 1 La Liga opponents created chances worth 0.84 expected goals per game, since the turn of the year that number has risen to 0.99. It is not an insignificant rise but that still means that the average attack would only score a single goal against Atletico, though even that would be no mean feat against Oblak.

Simeone has experimented in recent weeks, deploying a back three to at least partly account for the absence of the excellent Kieran Trippier and also to offer more attacking punch to his side. Should he deem it necessary to tighten up once more he could swiftly swing back to his trusty 4-4-2. Sime Vrsaljko may not be on the same level as the banned England international but he could certainly hold firm with cover ahead of him.

Perhaps a more potent attack might cause Atleti difficulties — Sevilla certainly did even in a 2-0 defeat last month — but right now Chelsea are not that as they come to terms with new manager Tuchel’s demands of them. They have been effective in grinding out results from their superior possession, rather than through the intricate movements in the final third that the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain boss will look to implement over time.

Chelsea’s shots in games under Thomas Tuchel’s management. The size of each bubble reflects the chance quality – in recent match they have not made a significant number of high-value goalscoring opportunities

Since Tuchel’s appointment Chelsea’s possession per game has skyrocketed from an already significant 59 percent to 68 percent, the second highest in the Premier League behind a Manchester United side who have only faced one serious rival over the past month. And yet, despite seeing far more of the ball the Blues are yet to click in attack. In six games they have scored eight goals but three have come from the penalty spot. Strip those spot kicks out of the equation and their expected goals per game under new management are just 1.02.

All of this is perfectly understandable for a team in the early stages of life with Tuchel but it does not augur well for those neutrals who will be switching on this match hoping for a barnstorming European night. Even against the best attacks Atletico are perfectly willing to cede possession and challenge opponents to break them down. So far Chelsea have shown they can keep the ball but not do all that much with it. This could be a very low scoring affair.

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Suarez will miss a big chance

And on the subject of why this might be a game light on goals (look at least if you keep your expectations low there’s less chance of being disappointed) we need to talk about Luis Suarez’s form away from home. Whether this counts as an away tie is another matter, strictly speaking this is Atletico’s home game but it is taking place in Bucharest’s Arena Nationala due to COVID-19 restrictions. And if there’s one thing that the Uruguayan seems to like on European nights it is his home comforts.

In 63 Champions League matches across his career Suarez has 25 goals, 18 of which have come in home games. Looking for an away game in Europe where the 34-year-old has found the net? You will need to travel back to the heady days of 2015, where he netted the last of seven road goals he scored that year in a 1-1 draw with Roma.

Since then? Zilch. Of course the argument might go that it is harder to find the net on your travels, that chances are fewer and further between when a team is playing on the road without their fans. That argument rings rather hollow when most of your Champions League career has been spent at a Barcelona side who have dominated the vast majority of games they have played in this competition regardless of the venue.

On a per 90 minute basis Suarez’s expected goals are marginally lower (even though he gets a far higher proportion of them in the box) but he is still getting the same number of shots, just skewing them far and wide.

Suarez’s varying form in Champions League games

Goals

0.61

0.22

Shots

3.42

3.43

Expected goals

0.58

0.51

Shot conversion

17.8%

6.5%

Assists

0.47

0.16

The sample size is sufficient that we can’t discount this as a fluke, he has played almost a full domestic season of away Champions League games after all. One has to assume that this is akin to a goal scoring case of the yips, that perhaps Suarez is acutely aware that he does not score European goals when he is not in home games. If you were a member of staff on the home team come Tuesday night you would be well advised to plaster the Arena Nationala with as much Atleti paraphernalia as possible.

If Simeone and Atletico need some cause for optimism they might note that Suarez has played one ‘home’ match at a neutral venue in this competition (which we left out of calculations for the table above) before and found the net that night. The slight fly in the ointment? It was the same night Bayern Munich scored eight.

Mount stands out yet again

Tuchel’s appointment was supposed to spell the end of Mason Mount’s period as the poster boy of Chelsea. The first game of the German’s tenure saw the former manager’s most trusted lieutenant consigned to the substitutes’ bench, a sign of a fresh start at Stamford Bridge that the most panicky of Frank Lampard’s supporters insisted meant a death knell for the academy.

Yet it did not take long for Tuchel to see in Mount what Lampard and England manager Gareth Southgate have: a player who melds technical excellence with some of the more unheralded pre-requisites that come with being a top level modern footballer, particularly when it comes to pressing.

Lampard famously emphasized that quality, saying in November that Mount “presses as well as any midfield player that I’ve worked with or played alongside” and it is no less valuable to Thomas Tuchel, who hauled substitute Callum Hudson-Odoi off in Saturday’s draw with Southampton because he was unhappy with his energy.

If praising Mount’s pressing feels like damning him with faint praise to some (it shouldn’t, but anyway) it is perhaps also worth reflecting on how consistently the 22-year-old comes up big in games when Chelsea need him to. In the draw against Southampton so many of his fellow attackers seemed to be laboring but the youngster forced the issue, winning himself a penalty that he subsequently converted.

That is typical of how he plays when the game is on the line. In tied situations he converts 12.3 percent of shots as opposed to 3.7 percent when Chelsea are leading. He completes a higher proportion of his take-ons, 69 percent as opposed to 59 percent, when his team are losing as opposed to when they are winning. When his managers need him Mount invariably delivers.



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