By Matt Law (Guest Contributor)
LONDON: It has been seven long years since Chelsea last progressed further than the last 16 of the Champions League.
Atletico Madrid knocked Chelsea out at the semi-final stage in 2014 and since then they have been eliminated in each of their four last-16 ties.
In the seven years before their last semi-final appearance, Chelsea had reached two finals, winning the tournament in 2012, two semi-finals and a quarter-final.
So it’s high time Chelsea got past the first knockout stage and proved that the Champions League is a competition they set out to win, rather than to make money from.
It should be noted that they have not been fortunate with their draws, having been knocked out by Paris Saint-Germain, twice, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, but Chelsea have not been competitive in Europe’s top competition for too long.
Thomas Tuchel faces a tough task to become the first head coach since Jose Mourinho to get past the last-16 with Chelsea, as La Liga leaders Atletico lie in wait.
Next Tuesday’s trip to face Atletico in Bucharest represents the first big challenge of Tuchel’s reign and progression over the two legs would no doubt be seen as a major success.
Atletico have lost only one La Liga game all season, although they were also thrashed 4-0 by Bayern in the Champions League group stages.
Bayern brushed Chelsea aside – 7-1 on aggregate – at this stage last season on their way to winning the Champions League and the Germans are once again the favourites to go all the way.
Chelsea can take encouragement from the fact they are a team in form since Tuchel’s arrival and success in the Champions League owes much to timing as they proved themselves in 2012 under then-interim manager Roberto Di Matteo.
Atletico have also, much to their dismay, lost home advantage because of the coronavirus travel restrictions which should benefit Chelsea, even if there will be no home crowd in the return leg at Stamford Bridge.
The big unknown for Chelsea is how their inexperienced players – many of whom are unproven at this level – will perform in the most cut-throat of environments.
Timo Werner will not be able to afford to miss two great chances before taking one, as he did against Newcastle United, while the defence can be sure that even the slightest of mistakes at the back will be punished.
Tuchel, though, has Champions League pedigree, having guided PSG to last season’s final, and it will be interesting to see whether or not he sticks with what has worked in the Premier League or comes up with something special in Europe.
In terms of whether or not his squad are in the best possible form to face Atletico, Tuchel said: “You need to ask me next Monday. We will be prepared and, hopefully, I will tell you that we are well prepared. We will do everything to go through but you know very well that Atletico are top of the league and are by far the top of the league in Spain. They are one of the toughest teams in Spain and are still a challenge. It is a two-match elimination as you know well.
“We will focus on Southampton and the best way to arrive in the Champions League with a good performance. Hopefully another win, we will see on Monday who we can count on and who is ready to play.
“We are self-confident enough to say we play these two games to get to the next round but it will be super hard.”
For a club so consumed by winning under owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea needs to stop accepting second best in Europe.