It was about two minutes after the final whistle, while Antonio Conte and his victorious players were still massing to acknowledge their fans’ delirious celebrations up in the gods, when the television cameras focused in upon their man. Diego Costa was sitting among the Atlético Madrid dignitaries, initially wearing the same haggard, disbelieving look as those immediately around him, before sinking his head into his hands. It was an image to sum up the locals’ dismal night but, deep inside, even the departed striker must have admired everything his former team‑mates had done here.
Conte had always seen this contest as a means of gauging Chelsea’s real capabilities back in the elite, concerned as he was that even a year-long absence might have blunted their pedigree. In inflicting Atletico’s first home defeat to English opposition – and their first reverse in their new arena – the Premier League side have laid down a marker. The last time they travelled here, in the first leg of the 2014 semi-final, they had attempted merely to suffocate, eventually squeezing out a goalless draw.
It is a reflection of Conte’s enterprise, and the confidence he has imbued, that they sought and managed to outplay the Spanish this time round. Had they been slightly more ruthless their winner would not have been as late as the third minute of stoppage time.
This is the kind of result to alarm the other contenders, a victory crammed with positive performances: from N’Golo Kanté stamping authority all over a game at the higher level, to the effervescence going forward and the resilience and collective refusal to wilt once behind. There were other aspects that will trouble the perfectionist in Conte, though it would be hard to criticise his players for profligacy when the substitute, flung on late, goes on to score with the last kick of the contest.
Most promising of all was the instant telepathy struck up by Eden Hazard and Álvaro Morata, a partnership that seemed revelatory in its productivity all evening. Manchester City, watching on from afar, will fear the damage that pair could inflict on Saturday at Stamford Bridge if both have recovered physically. Costa must have drooled at the familiar quality of the supply-line. “Eden’s performance was amazing,” said Conte. “It was the first big game for him after the bad injury and his answer was fantastic, positive.”
There was reassurance to be had in Hazard’s brilliance. Conte had extended a challenge on the eve of this fixture, urging the Belgian to hoist his game to another level by dazzling in the Champions League. His response was emphatic, even if he had departed before his compatriot’s late winner. Hazard’s own moment had come just before the hour mark, collecting David Luiz’s cross-field pass on the chest, teasing space from Juanfran before whipping a glorious cross into the six-yard box. There pounced Morata, darting ahead of Lucas Hernández, to guide a header down and beyond Jan Oblak.
The pair had threatened to prosper all night, clicking early into each other’s wavelength with Atlético powerless in response. Twice in the opening eight minutes Hazard had found the Spaniard in space only for Morata, his every touch jeered on his return to Madrid, to drag shots wide of the far post. This was Hazard uncoiled, a playmaker who has been patient as Chelsea understandably dealt carefully with his rehabilitation from summer ankle surgery, tearing back into the fray with relish on his second start of term.
The scuttling runs, all low centre of gravity with ball glued to his instep, were incisive. The vision of his pass, and speed of thought, disconcerted Atletico’s experienced back-line. Juanfran and Godín heaved to contain him. Saúl Ñíguez and Koke sought to track him, but the Belgian merely scurried into areas neither was comfortable occupying.
Diego Simeone had been so alarmed by the visitors’ start that he tweaked his formation in a bid to close the space between rigid lines of four where the elusive Hazard was revelling, though Antoine Griezmann still felt compelled to hack him down to quell the threat. The 26-year-old had been asked to play in a freer, more central role, flitting forward from the tip of the diamond.
His goals will come. A tally of five in 32 games for Chelsea in this competition represents a meagre tally for a player of his pedigree and he found side-netting and, via a deflection, the woodwork from distance.
Regardless, his delivery was always menacing. Marcos Alonso air-kicked from his centre, Cesc Fàbregas poked wide from a ball slid along the six-yard box and Morata, liberated into enemy territory beyond a labouring Lucas, merely managed a heavy touch and a shot that squirted wide of the far post.
For a while it seemed Chelsea might end up cursing those misses but as it was, Conte’s bold substitutions – removing Hazard and Morata seemed surprising – yielded the rewards his side’s play merited. It is hard to recall a more impressive away display in this competition by an English team over recent years.
As Costa might have acknowledged in his post-match gloom, a standard has been set in this section.
The Guardian Sport