Belief sees Atletico through
"No me lo puedo creer" was the cry from one Atletico Madrid fan outside a bar in the Spanish capital: "I don't believe it."
Forty years after their last European Cup final, the side from the Spanish capital return to the summit of European football: the Champions League final. It is, and this is not an overstatement, nothing short of extraordinary. Ironically, in their bid for glory they will face the side whose shadow they've been in for the vast majority of that time: city neighbours Real Madrid.
In a week shrouded in buzzwords such as "tactical master class," "football genius" and "pragmatism," it is perhaps fitting that a well-drilled side, constructed in their manager's image that play to their strengths, have gone on to progress against more illustrious opposition. Atletico defeated Chelsea decisively, 3-1 on aggregate. There was no “ghost goal” as in 2005, nor was there a penalty shootout or even a debatable refereeing decision for Blues manager Jose Mourinho to cling on to. He highlighted an "impossible save" made by Thibaut Courtois, Chelsea's own goalkeeper loaned out to Atleti, on a John Terry header in the second half. But even the Special One himself couldn't truly believe it was this one moment that decided the game.
It was Atleti manager Diego Simeone's night. The former Argentina international, who served Atletico so well in two different spells as a player from 1994-97 and 2003-05, took over a club in turmoil in December 2011. A Europa League and Copa del Rey later, the club are now one win away from Champions League glory, and two away from being crowned La Liga champions.
Upon seeing a Chelsea starting XI that contained six defenders -- argue as you might that Cesar Azpilicueta and David Luiz were used in midfield -- it was evident that, like Liverpool, Atletico were going to encounter a stubborn Blues side against whom the first goal would be crucial.
An away goal would leave Mourinho's men needing to score two against a defence that hasn't conceded more than a single goal in a game during this season's competition. When Koke's over-hit cross dipped over Chelsea keeper Mark Schwarzer's head and somehow stayed out thanks to a combination of the bar and post, you wondered if it was going to be one of those evenings.
The fact that Chelsea (and former Atleti) forward Fernando Torres, much-maligned by Chelsea fans but still adored by Atleti's, opened the scoring with the aid of a decisive deflection off Mario Suarez did little to quash such thoughts.
But Los Colchoneros do not know when they are beaten. They have been infected by their manager's fighting spirit and steely grit; captain for the night (and former Chelsea midfielder) Tiago said as much after the game: "Simeone has a lot to do with it. He has changed our mentality."
The Portugal international was the architect of his side's first goal on the stroke of halftime. Tiago's cute diagonal ball caught out a Chelsea back line that hadn't put a foot wrong and had gone over 200 minutes without conceding, with Ashley Cole the guilty party. Francisco Juanfran's contribution cannot be understated, either; he gave every ounce of energy to not only keep the ball in, but also tee up Adrian Lopez to level. This is the same Adrian who has not even made the 18-man squad on numerous match days in the league this season, thrown into his side's most important game of the season from the off, ahead of Raul Garcia, after the big midfielder was nullified at the Calderon. Some might call that "genius."
Simeone and the Atletico Madrid bench went wild. Mourinho looked resigned. All evening, the Atleti manager was on his feet, displaying all the traits we have come to expect from Chelsea's boss over the years: wild gesticulations, haranguing of the officials, appealing for every decision like his life depended on it. There was even a brief touchline dash later on. If the Atletico manager’s traits resembled those of his Chelsea counterpart, then Simeone's players played in his image. Fighting, first to every loose ball, they controlled the tempo of the game, slowing things down, going down when they had the chance, eating away the minutes one by one.
The onus was on Chelsea, and yet it was the visitors who took the initiative. Simeone's homework had been done.
Atleti's Diego Costa was a handful, and what can only be described as a typical striker's challenge from Samuel Eto'o helped the Brazil-born Spain striker -- who was subsequently booked after Chelsea's protests against time wasting, which were somewhat hypocritical following their weekend showing at Anfield -- to announce himself to what could well be his home fans next season. Costa buried the penalty kick.
If Costa's move to Chelsea is already agreed, there were few signs of it. Like the 10 other Rojiblancos players, Costa was a warrior. He even drew his fingers to his lips to shush the crowd as he was berated after going off the field for treatment.
Arda Turan put the icing on the cake. In an almost carbon copy of the move that saw them level proceedings, the Turkey international stole in to meet Juanfran's pull-back -- from a Tiago diagonal -- and hit the bar before tapping in the rebound. Cue the aforementioned brief touchline dash. Simeone soon gathered himself and made sure his players were focused.
Atletico's side saw out the game professionally, condemning Mourinho to consecutive home defeats for the first time in his Chelsea career, making it four consecutive semifinal defeats for the Portuguese in the Champions League.
The postmatch reaction of the Los Colchoneros boss was typical: "We have to think about the next game against Levante." A win would move them within three points of the La Liga crown.
"No me lo puedo creer," shrilled the fan. You better start believing.