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Chelsea emerge as Champions League’s ‘team you want to avoid’ and legitimate contenders

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Emerson Palmieri celebrates after scoring the second for Chelsea (Getty)
Emerson Palmieri celebrates after scoring the second for Chelsea (Getty)

It isn’t too long since Atletico Madrid represented the hardest challenge in European football, the team you wanted to avoid more than any other, which made it all the more striking that Chelsea won so easily.

It is why that description may now fit Thomas Tuchel’s side.

You wouldn’t currently say Chelsea FC are at Manchester City or Bayern Munich’s level yet, after all. They are some way off being “super favourites”, to use Arsene Wenger’s term about AC Milan back in 1988-89.

There isn’t enough evidence for that, after an admittedly brief spell in charge so far. But a performance of this quality, to make it 13 games unbeaten since taking the job, is an indication of great potential.

“I am certain no one will want to face us,” Tuchel said. It’s hard to disagree. In that, they may well be a Liverpool 2017-18, good enough to really do damage to sides that are currently superior.

They just look a particularly dangerous team right now, in a totally different way from how that would usually have been said about Atletico. There was much more to Tuchel’s team. It wasn’t that they were hard to break down – as illustrated by that defensive record.

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It was that they were so hard to get at. They always felt a step ahead of Atletico, and a step up.

In that, it was one of those classic European games where the true “standard” of the game is illustrated.

What is especially impressive from Tuchel is that this has mostly been a product of coaching, and tactics.

It should be acknowledged here that Chelsea of course have one of the strongest squads in Europe, which is why they are such strong contenders for the Champions League. It is also why Frank Lampard was sacked, and that’s the point. That decision looks more devastatingly correct by the day.

Tuchel still came into a squad with a very high ceiling, but at a very low ebb. He has restored them to an acceptable level, but also taken them beyond.

There may be some lingering questions about the German’s man-management – not that you would guess it here with the spirit of the team, the celebrations and how the injured Thiago Silva jumped to his feet in the stands – but there can be no doubt about his tactics. This is why he is considered close to an equal of Pep Guardiola.

It is cutting-edge modern football, intelligent and adaptable enough to be defensively secure, but primarily proactive, and fluid enough to hurt opposition from all angles. You only had to look at the two winning goals for that. It was if Chelsea could move the ball to any area at will, and at speed, for one of their players to fly in and finish. The players have also been integrated into this approach, and evidently understand it, with equally impressive speed. This was what felt a step-up about the performance as a whole. There was an even greater fluidity, and coherence.

That the second scorer was the often overlooked Emerson Palmeri only emphasises this.

There is a deeper significance to this for the future of the European game, and its evolution.

It made Simeone’s football look so basic, and obsolete.

In that, the Argentine is the last of a type, and maybe the end of an era.

For the last seven years, since eliminating Jose Mourinho in the 2013-14 semi-finals, Simeone has basically been the only manager regularly reaching the Champions League latter stages who plays a defence-based game.

Ziyech and Havertz celebrate the openerAFP

Ziyech and Havertz celebrate the openerAFP

The effect of that has receded, to the point they have again gone out in the last 16 after a timid display.

There is growing evidence that just doesn’t cut it at the top level any more. That style of game is gone. It’s too basic, no longer able to withstand evolutions in attacking tactics, or how cutting-edge sports science has made the game even faster.

Chelsea typified that in this last-16 second-leg game. They made Atletico look like a soft touch, and pronounced themselves as perhaps the most difficult challenge in the competition. A match against them looks painful.

That was once said of Atletico, in the past.

They just look past it. Chelsea, meanwhile, may well be the future of the competition – and perhaps the future home of the trophy.

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