When the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 was made back in mid-December, Chelsea fans up and down the country would have watched on in despair as former Borussia Dortmund striker Stéphane Chapuisat unscrewed the miniature Champions League ball to reveal their side would face the difficult task of Atlético Madrid in the first knockout stage.
As the Blues’ campaign spiralled rapidly out of control throughout the remainder of the festive period and into much of January under the guidance of Frank Lampard, any hope of beating Diego Simeone’s in-form Atléti seemed to be out of the question.
After all, the Madrid side are flying high at the top of the La Liga table. At the time of writing, they are eight points clear of their cross-city rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, and they boast a game in hand over Spain’s big two.
16 wins, three draws and just one defeat in their 20 league games thus far is a record not to be sniffed at, yet it is Chelsea who are narrowly the favourites to progress to the quarter-finals in the UEFA Champions League odds and betting.
Of course, in the time since the draw was made two months ago, a lot has changed in west London and there is probably more reason to be hopeful ahead of the tough tie for Chelsea fans.
Lampard has been dismissed and in has stepped former Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel, and since the German’s arrival in the English capital last month, it would not be an understatement to say the Blues have been rejuvenated.
Since the minute Tuchel stepped into Chelsea’s Cobham training ground, it was clear changes would be made and the German has not been afraid to switch things up. Players like Antonio Rüdiger and Marcos Alonso, who had been cast out by Lampard, were brought back into the fold and the 4-3-3 formation that Chelsea’s all-time top scorer stuck by relentlessly was scrapped for three at the back with wing-backs in support of the attackers and defenders.
So far, it has worked wonders for the Stamford Bridge side. With just a one-hour training session under Tuchel, the Blues played out a 0-0 draw with Wolverhampton Wanderers, but three successive victories over Burnley, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United have followed and Chelsea are making their way back up the Premier League table at a good rate.
That’s reason to give the Stamford Bridge faithful hope that perhaps they can progress to latter stages ahead of Atléti, a team that they don’t boast the best of records against, with just two wins in seven outings since 2009.
However, if Chelsea’s newfound form wasn’t enough to better their chances against Simeone’s well-drilled outfit, then a covid outbreak within the squad could really give Tuchel’s side the upper hand. Atléti could be without João Félix, Thomas Lemar, Hector Herrera, Moussa Dembélé, Yannick Carrasco and Mario Hermoso.
The potential loss of attackers Félix, Lemar, Dembélé and Carrasco will give Simeone a major headache as Chelsea are already a tough unit to break down. In Tuchel’s first four league games, only Sheffield United have managed to find the net, and you’d imagine even with the in-form Luis Suárez fit, Simeone would rely on all of his best attackers to break down the Blues’ defence.
A potential switch for Atléti’s home tie from the Wanda Metropolitano to somewhere else in Europe could also play in Chelsea’s favour. Even though fans wouldn’t be in attendance in the Spanish capital, the hosts would still have had their home comforts. However, playing elsewhere would potentially level the playing field.
Chelsea fans should definitely be brimming with confidence ahead of the tie. Tuchel has the team performing better on the pitch, and an outbreak which has potentially taken out some of their opposition’s best players is always an advantage.