[UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE] The only surviving semifinalist not to win the Champions League may be the underdog against 2012 winner Chelsea, but Atletico Madrid is not a longshot.
They meet Tuesday (live at 2:45 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1) in the first leg at Vicente Calderon Stadium and if anything, despite the illustrious pedigree of Chelsea and glamour manager Jose Mourinho, this series is rated as a tossup.
Atletico is riding atop La Liga and solidified its European credentials by knocking off league rival Barcelona, 2-1, on aggregate following a 1-0 victory in the second leg. The triumph -- the fifth match this season in which Barca couldn’t defeat its rival -- ends a 40-year absence from the semis of Europe’s top club competition, dating back to the 1973-74 tournament.
Though Barca ended up with a 64-36 percent edge in possession, Atleti scored early through Koke and hit the woodwork twice after Adrian Lopez’s shot came back off the crossbar in the fifth minute. Barca could only partially clear the ball, which David Villa crossed back in from the left wing to the far post, where Koke’s crisp volley triggered a thunderous celebration.
Koke and Lopez took up much of the attacking burden in the absence of Diego Costa, who missed the second leg against Barca and after his return to the field suffered a shin contusion colliding with a goalpost nine days ago in a league match against Getafe. He missed a penalty kick before scoring the second goal against Getafe, and despite the post incident is fit for the Tuesday showdown.
Chelsea’s spirits may be down after a shocking 2-1 home loss to Sunderland Saturday severely damaged its hopes of catching Premier League leader Liverpool, which it plays Sunday at Anfield. The defeat ended manager Mourinho’s incredible home unbeaten streak at 77 matches and took away some of the luster from a dramatic 2-0 defeat of Paris St. Germain in the second leg of the quarterfinals that tied the series,3-3, on aggregate, and sent Chelsea into the semis on away goals.
Keeper Peter Cech returns to face Atletico after he missed the Sunderland game because of illness, but winger Eden Hazard is doubtful with a strained calf he suffered against Paris St. Germain and defender Branislav Ivanovic is suspended. Questionable performances in the back have plagued Chelsea this season and the absence of the robust and experienced Ivanovic could open the gates for Atletico's prolific attack.
There are myriad connections between the clubs. Atletico keeper Thibaut Courtois is on loan from Chelsea, and striker Fernando Torres started his career with the Spanish club and scored 82 goals before moving to Liverpool, which sold him to Chelsea in one of the most-ridiculed transfers of all time. Atletico thrashed Chelsea, 4-1, in the UEFA Super Cup two years ago.