Olivier Giroud's brilliant overhead kick earned Chelsea a precious 1-0 win 'away' to Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie in Bucharest.
A determined, diligent Atleti defence was always going to need something special to be breached and Giroud provided that with his 40th goal for Chelsea, one which has them firmly in the ascendancy ahead of next month's second leg at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea dominated possession throughout this game but found themselves crashing against an Atletico defense that at times seemed to be lining up as a 6-3-1, leaving few if any spaces for the Blues to attack. If anyone looked like finding a way through this most obdurate of rearguards it was Mason Mount, who twice teed up Timo Werner to go close in the first half.
Atletico threatened in patches at the other end but their best chances throughout the first half came more from Chelsea's mistakes than their own quality, Edouard Mendy's dawdling on the ball nearly allowed the dangerous Joao Felix to steal in.
In truth Atleti looked like holding on to a 0-0 draw that would have suited their needs more than Chelsea's until Mario Hermoso deflected a 50:50 challenge with Mount into the path of Giroud, whose spectacular bicycle kick put Chelsea in the driving seat of this tie after a lengthy VAR review confirmed the Frenchman had indeed been onside.
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Chelsea rewarded for their persistence
The great masters of the defensive arts were more than willing to hand possession to Chelsea, who could complete as many passes around the final third as they wished. Indeed after 20 minutes Thomas Tuchel's side had completed 72 in what was theoretically the most dangerous area of the pitch. Atletico had managed 51 across the whole field.
All that possession and it was not until six minutes before the interval that Chelsea charmed their way into the attacking penalty area, a smart reverse pass by Mount slipping Timo Werner in behind as the German missed one of two promising shots that were among the infrequent chances the Blues managed to create against a massed defence determined to deny them an away goal.
Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi's interplay was encouraging enough but still seem to be a team who know how to build the outline of a passing move but without a clear idea of how what they are doing will lead to a goal. They did not seem to play to their own strengths in the first half, they failed to give Giroud much of the service he works best with: crosses from wide to the near post or quick interplay between the Frenchman and forwards close to him. Instead he was left on an island looking for long balls.
The intensity from the visitors grew in the second half; knowing that Atletico were not all that bothered about scoring themselves Antonio Rudiger and in particular Cesar Azpilicueta pushed up the pitch just to add a few more bodies to Chelsea's numbers in the danger area. It did not look like their hosts were going to buckle but if a mistake was to be made Tuchel's men were in position to capitalize.
Ultimately if you are prepared to probe and commit numbers to attack consistently you increase your chances of a lucky break, a moment where Mount and Mario Hermoso compete for a ball in the area, it flicks off the Atletico defender and into Giroud's path.
Atleti ask too much of themselves
If you were to pick any team who could hold their opponent goalless for 90 minutes it would be Atletico. For the most part they defended exceptionally albeit in great numbers, completely blocking off the middle third of the pitch and restricting any opportunities for Chelsea to build attacks around the edge of the box.
But there were occasions where this felt like a parody of a Diego Simeone's side, an obsession with keeping things tight for the sake of it. Mendy looked shaky in possession, Andreas Christensen vulnerable whenever pressure came his way. And yet bar the most infrequent of patches Atletico opted not to commit any numbers forward.
Thomas Lemar, whose form has improved significantly this season, was functioning as a left-back. After 85 minutes Saul had touched the ball only five times in the attacking third, Felix not more often with nine. There was quality in this team and on the bench to force mistakes from Chelsea but Atletico instead asked of themselves that they execute a flawless plan.
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They very nearly did. It took a goal of real excellence and no little fortune to swing this tie in Chelsea's favor. But that goal did come. And Atletico never looked like recovering from it.