‘A Blue Up North’ previews Chelsea’s Champions’ League campaign…
Oh the Champions League, how we have missed you. Even an absence of only a single season has felt like an eternity. Just wait for the moment when the Stamford Bridge PA system fires up the iconic CL anthem and the reaction felt from the hairs on the back of your neck. Oh happy days.
But Chelsea is not a club content with just being in the competition. No, the club expects to be challenging into the latter stages. After all Chelsea are England’s most successful club in reaching the quarterfinals and beyond in this competition in the last 15 years.
To achieve this they will need to qualify from the group stages. The draw sees them pitted in Group C with Atlético Madrid, Roma and Qarabag. I’m sure most had the same initial reaction of “blimey, that’s a tough group”. After all, Atlético have reached 2 of the last 4 finals, Roma were hot on the heels of Juventus in Serie A for most of last season and Qarabag is a trip not for the faint hearted.
However when delving a little deeper into each of Chelsea’s opponents the group we find plenty of strengths but also a number of potentially key weaknesses.
Atlético Madrid’s Diego Simeone has transferred his strong but intelligent football style from player into head coach. Atlético definitely play as a group how he played as a player. They give everything in every match and do not give up on lost causes. Together, with some great talent all over the pitch, we can expect them to be among this season’s contenders.
However, Atlético are currently under a transfer embargo in which they are banned from registering new players until January. Therefore keeping hold of talisman Antoine Griezmann was vital for them and they achieved this despite huge interest amongst Europe’s finest.
Some of their other key players over the past few years are not quite at the level they were. 2 examples are their full backs. Ex Blue Filipe Luis and Juanfran are both 32 years old now and a little off form – Luis even losing his place to Hernandez in recent matches. Alonso and either Moses or Zappacosta will feel confident in marauding forward both home and away against them, whilst the ever improving Morata will find opportunities against the centre back pairing of Savic and Giminez.
Another potentially important factor and most relevant when Chelsea play in Madrid on matchday 2 is that it will be Atlético’s first competitive match at their new stadium. A new and unfamiliar experience for both sides and so the home field advantage will be diminished (Spurs and Wembley or West Ham and The London Stadium spring to mind).
Roma had been on an upturn recently. The return of their previous manager Luciano Spalletti in January 2016 generally revitalised them and results started improving. Despite a major fallout between Spalletti and Roma legend Francesco Totti the club moved from mid table to finish in third place that season.
After a stuttering start to last season, Roma became very resilient and consistent. With a solid defence, a strong midfield and pace and power in attack they remained in second place for the rest of the campaign. However the season ended with problems on and off the pitch which finally led to the acrimonious exit of Spalletti.
If you add the retirement of Totti and the sales of a few key players (their best defender Rudiger to Chelsea and the dangerous Salah to Liverpool) their is some rebuilding work required within the team. The addition of Patrik Schick from Sampdoria is a huge plus for them whilst Edin Dzeko was the top goal scorer in Seria A last season and they still possess one of the best midfield partnerships in Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman.
That being said, it is unlikely they will be the force they were last season and will have their work cut out to try and replicate their second spot in the league especially against the likes of Napoli, both Milan clubs and maybe even city rivals Lazio. Tough away trips to London and Madrid, whilst playing at home in front of a nowhere near full Olympico will test their resolve further.
Qarabag are a very different proposition. A team that have never played in the group stage of the CL before and they do not have a great record in European competitions.
However with ongoing turmoils in Azerbaijan (Qarabag have been playing in the capital Baku and not their home town since 1993 due to the war), they are adored by the whole country as a symbol of overcoming such atrocities. The 3 home matches will seem like cup finals to their players and supporters so visiting teams will need to be prepared and focused.
The main players of note are Medvedev in defence, Almeida who can create chances from midfield and Ndlovu who is their main goal threat. Even these 3 will find these matches as a big step up and provided Chelsea play to their own strengths and take control early on they should achieve home and away victories over Qarabag.
So how Chelsea will get on?
Where will they finish in the group?
Maybe look at it all from the other direction. Atlético, Roma and Qarabag will all be more concerned playing against Chelsea. A run of 3 consecutive victories for The Blues would only increase those concerns. The squad is coming together nicely and if anything is looking stronger than last season, unlike their CL opponents.
Chelsea will be the favourites to qualify, followed by Atlético, then Roma with Qarabag celebrating any single points they achieve.
Oh happy days indeed.
Follow ‘A Blue Up North’ on twitter: @ClitheroeBlue