Chelsea's first Champions League knockout stage win in 7 years should be a watershed

24 February 2021 08:15

Since the heady days of the noughties and early 2010s, Chelsea have been starved of success in the latter stages of the Champions League.

After almost a decade of desperately striving to win Europe's premier club competition, five last-16 exits have followed the extraordinary success of 2012 - a run perhaps emblematic of a shift in priorities, conscious or otherwise, and transitional phases under countless different managers.

The last time the Blues won either leg of a knockout tie in the competition was seven years ago, beating Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 at home in the second instalment of the 2014 quarter-final under José Mourinho, edging through on away goals thanks to a late strike from none other than Demba Ba.

Chelsea players celebrate at the full-time whistle back in 2014 | ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty Images

Considering the huge emphasis on reaching the top four - with managers hired and fired on that basis - it is bizarre that nine years on from Munich, expectation in the Champions League is at an all-time low; a side steeped in the competitions recent history, they haven't come close to winning it in yonks.

However, an exceptional victory away* (*in Bucharest with no fans) to Atlético Madrid - their first away in the knockout stages since the glorious 2012 campaign - should be enough to change that.

Arguably for the first time since Mourinho's second spell, in Thomas Tuchel Chelsea have a head coach with pedigree in this competition and the know-how to reach the latter stages, clearly best exemplified by PSG's run to the final last season.

Even so, Chelsea's following would have been uncertain of the magnitude of the challenge facing their team ahead of the relocated last 16 first leg on Tuesday night, with the match representing the maiden big test of Tuchel's newly-inherited side, and Atlético's league position not reflecting some enigmatic recent form and surely more a result of their rivals faltering so badly.

After so many underwhelming Champions League efforts, this felt like something of a free hit for the English side, and Chelsea's players treated it as such, dominating the ball from start to finish against the lowest of low blocks from Diego Simeone's men, who strangely seemed to overestimate their opponents with their insistence on conservatism.

Olivier Giroud's magnificent match-winning overhead kick was just reward for a tough night's work, although it was in many ways an easier night's work than many would have anticipated as Los Rojiblancos declined to pose an attacking threat.

While it could have been more comfortable, this result should act as the alarm that awakens a dormant European giant and reinvigorates Chelsea's love affair with the Champions League.

They are clearly not favourites to go all the way, but with the pressure off the competition can offer a welcome distraction from the laborious tussle for the top four, and a good run could signal a return to the years of reaching the latter stages of the competition season after season.

Of course there is the second leg to go, but - without being too reductive - under Tuchel it feels the time has come for Chelsea to overcome the troublesome hurdle of the last 16 and reclaim their place among Europe's eight strongest clubs.

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Source: 90min