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Atletico's run has earned Mourinho's respect
by Ridge Mahoney, April 29th, 2014 10:51PM

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TAGS:  uefa champions league

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[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] The long unbeaten streak at Stamford Bridge under Jose Mourinho has ended and in that ancient stadium is where Chelsea will try to reach its second Champions League final in three seasons.

A 0-0 tie in the first leg at the Estadio Vicente Calderon last week leaves the slate clean for Chelsea and Atletico Madrid to meet again Wednesday (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).

Several Chelsea players have recovered from injuries and with the homefield advantage the Blues will be favored, though any scoring tie sends Atletico into the final on the away goals rule. Only if the 90 minutes ends 0-0 can there be overtime.

Chelsea seemingly squandered its chance at the Premier League title April 18 when it lost at home to Sunderland, 2-1, snapping Mourinho’s 77-match unbeaten run in all competitions at the Bridge. But a spectacular 2-0 victory at Liverpool Sunday kept its hopes, as well as those of Manchester City, alive.

Raul Garcia scored the only goal Atletico needed last weekend to win its league match, 1-0, at Valencia. It is unbeaten in its last nine games domestically and 14 overall and is on course to end the stranglehold of Barcelona and Real Madrid on La Liga title.

Atletico took 25 shots in the first leg but against Chelsea was unable to beat keeper Petr Cech nor his backup, Mark Schwarzer, who stepped in when Cech departed with an injured shoulder. Before the whistle sounded defender, John Terry had also gone off yet the wall of Chelsea players in their defensive third stood firm.

There will many more attacking options for Chelsea in the second leg. The return of Samuel Eto'o and Eden Hazard, named Sunday as the Young Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers’ Association, adds 29 goals -- 17 by Hazard -- to the Chelsea arsenal. Eto’o is in the right place to contribute; he’s scored all 12 of his goals this season at Stamford Bridge. Yet Mourinho must also shore up his midfield with Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel suspended.

Mourinho praised the city rival he once butted heads with several times a season. Atlético last reached the semifinal of this competition 40 years ago but is sailing atop La Liga and most observers give it a fair chance to book a spot in Lisbon as well.

“Atlético were my direct rivals for three seasons but I always felt a relationship of respect with the club,” said Mourinho Tuesday. “I have respect for what they are doing because to be in a Champions League semifinal is not for every club, and to have the possibility of winning the league against Barcelona and Real Madrid is something that deserves my respect.”

Hazard suffered a calf strain during Chelsea’s 2-0 defeat of Paris St. Germain in the quarterfinals. His return will add speed, width and guile to the Chelsea attack, which in the first leg against Atlético as well as Liverpool didn’t generate many chances. The cautious, defensive game plans in those games triggered blistering criticism of Mourinho’s tactics, though any other approach Sunday against a team that leads the Premier League with 96 goals would have been naive. Chelsea is the best defensive team with only 26 goals allowed. In Champions League play, Chelsea has scored four fewer goals, 18, than Atletico’s 22.

Mourinho is staunchly defended by his players, especially Terry, who probably took the termination of his first stint with the club harder than anyone else.

“He's the first one there in the morning and the last one to go often,” said Terry after Tuesday’s training session. “That's noticed by the players. We love him to bits. We realize he's been very successful for a reason: he demands 100 percent from his players every day. If you're not giving that, he'll be honest and let you know. That's him. We accept that and love him to bits. We enjoy working with him.”

Atletico coach Diego Simeone is one of the most praised managers in the European game and a desirable hire for many clubs in the offseason. His team has allowed the fewest goals in the Champions League, just five in 11 matches, without sacrificing its firepower. Though Diego Costa has lost a bit of form the past few weeks, he has scored 27 goals in La Liga and seven in the Champions League. Next on the Euro list is Garcia with four.

For his part, Simeone knows he’s up against a master tactician whose vision and strategy of the game can only be fairly evaluated through results.

“I'm a football man,” said Simeone, who played 106 times for Argentina and during his club career spent three seasons at Atletico. “I respect different ways of setting out your team. It's about what's the best way for a specific game or a specific opposition. To defend well is not easy, so I congratulate teams who do that well. To attack well isn't easy, either. So you have to congratulate managers who get their sides doing that. Football evolves. There is no 'best way.' It depends on the manager spending time with his players, talking different set-ups and tactics, different approaches and styles.”

 



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