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Atlético Madrid-Chelsea FC: Rojiblancos, Blues get reacquainted in Bucharest

Atlético will “host” the Champions League round of 16 first leg on Tuesday night.

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Atletico Madrid Training Session
Saúl scored in Atlético’s last meeting with Chelsea, more than three years ago.
Photo by Stefan Constantin/MB Media/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid and Chelsea will meet in European competition for the eighth time on Tuesday, and the sixth time since Diego Simeone’s appointment as Atlético’s coach.

When this draw was made, Chelsea legend Frank Lampard was the team’s coach. But the club dismissed him on Jan. 25 and replaced him with former Paris Saint-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel. The German has overseen a change in fortunes, as Chelsea (Group E winners) have risen to fifth in the Premier League via a six-game unbeaten run with four clean sheets.

“Chelsea have changed, naming a coach — a great coach — who has gotten his teams to play very well wherever he has been,” Simeone said in the pre-match press conference. “Now, (his Chelsea team) is showing it.”

“Chelsea changed their system, they play with three center backs, and now they dominate the game more,” Stefan Savić said on Monday. “They have had good results (lately). We expect a very difficult game because they have young players with a lot of attacking talent. It will be difficult, but we are ready.”

Southampton v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Atlético (Group A runners-up) qualified for the knockout stages via a win over Red Bull Salzburg last December, but won’t get to play the first leg in Madrid due to ongoing restrictions on travel from the United Kingdom. In coordination with the club, UEFA selected Bucharest’s National Arena as the site for Tuesday’s game. Simeone’s side won the UEFA Europa League at the stadium back in 2012.

“What changes for us is that we had to fly four hours, and Chelsea had to fly for six,” Simeone quipped.

“Just looking at (Chelsea’s) goalkeepers, the forwards...the substitutes, many important players who could be starters in any team in Europe,” Simeone said. “The squad speaks for itself. It is one of the best in Europe. Chelsea are a powerful team.”

Chelsea’s sole absence is veteran center back Thiago Silva, and Tuchel confirmed Monday that countryman Kai Havertz and United States international Christian Pulisic are available for selection. Atlético’s situation is starkly different. The colchoneros flew to Bucharest without Yannick Carrasco, José Giménez, and Šime Vrsaljko (injuries, all). Kieran Trippier’s FA-imposed ban — incredibly consequential here, seeing as Atleti are to face English opposition Tuesday night — remains in effect. To top it off, Héctor Herrera hasn’t been able to make the trip, seeing as he has yet to test negative for COVID-19.

Atletico Madrid Training Session Photo by Alex Nicodim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Atlético’s defense — which has conceded 10 goals in the past seven games, including two in a home loss against Levante on Saturday — really could have used a fitness boost.

“It’s true that in recent games we have conceded goals, but whereas our defensive work was praised before, now we must know that the whole team has to improve in the defensive phase (to reach that level again) — firstly, the defenders themselves, then the rest of the team,” Savić said.

The Montenegrin will start following his suspension against Levante, but it is unknown whether Simeone will stick with his 3-5-2 formation or alter it given the absences and the change in competition. The right back/right wingback slot is up for grabs, seeing how problematic that position has become with Trippier unavailable and Marcos Llorente deputizing for him.

Atlético have won twice, lost twice, and drawn thrice against Chelsea, with the two teams last meeting in the 2017/18 Champions League. Under Antonio Conte, the Blues beat Atleti in Madrid before coming back to draw in matchday six, eliminating Simeone’s men at the group stage.

Atletico Madrid Training Session Photo by Alex Nicodim/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The squad

Date Feb. 23, 2021

Location Arena Naţională, Bucharest, Romania

Kickoff time 10:00 p.m. EET, 9:00 p.m. CET, 3:00 p.m. EST, 12:00 p.m. PST

SB Nation opposition blog We Ain’t Got No History

Available TV/streaming Movistar Liga de Campeones (Spain), BT Sport 2 (United Kingdom), CBS All Access (United States), Digi Sport 1 (Romania), ESPN2 Sur (Argentina), QQ Sports Live (China)