The Champions League returns for four matches over the next two days to wrap up the first legs in the UCL round of 16. On Tuesday, the headliner is the current La Liga leaders in Atletico Madrid taking on Chelsea.
Atletico Madrid return to the UCL knockout round a year after defeating Liverpool, last season’s Premier League champions, in the round of 16 in extra time 4-2. However, in the quarterfinals last August, they lost 2-1 to RB Leipzig on Tyler Adams’ late goal. This season, the player who scored the winning goal against Liverpool, Marcos Llorente, has broken out as the club’s primary playmaker with eight goals and seven assists in La Liga play. However, the main goal scorer has been former Barcelona striker Luis Suarez, who joined Atletico on a free transfer this past September. He has looked as effective as ever, scoring 16 goals with only two of them coming from the penalty spot. Suarez scored 12 goals in his first 15 appearances with Atletico, the most any La Liga player has scored with his new club since Cristiano Ronaldo scored 13 in his first 15 with Real Madrid. As usual under manager Diego Simeone, Atletico is defensively stout, conceding only 16 goals in 23 league matches (tied for the fewest with Sevilla). Atletico qualified for the round of 16 despite only winning two Group A matches and losing 4-0 to Bayern Munich.
Chelsea has had a roller coaster of a season since losing to Bayern Munich 7-1 on aggregate back in August. They spent over 200 million euros during the Fall transfer window, adding stars such as former Leipzig striker Timo Werner, former Leicester City left-back Ben Chilwell and former Rennes goalkeeper Edouard Mendy. The results have been mixed, spending the majority of the season outside the top four. This led to the firing of manager Frank Lampard, replacing him with former Paris Saint-Germain manager Thomas Tuchel, who managed PSG in the 2020 Champions League Final where they lost 1-0 to Bayern. Since Tuchel has taken over at Chelsea, the Blues have gone unbeaten with a Premier League record of 4-2-0. Aside from the league leaders in Manchester City, Chelsea have conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League with 25 in 25 matches. Werner has struggled to score consistently but has five goals and five assists on the season with Tammy Abraham leading the way with six goals. While there is no true go-to scorer, Chelsea has plenty of depth and will be a tough out in the UCL. Chelsea qualified for the knockout round after winning Group E over Sevilla.
With two defensively-stout clubs squaring off, goals will be at a premium. Mendy and Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak will make incredible saves to limit scoring and prevent either club from pulling away. I see this series going to extra time with the score 1-1, and in extra time, Suarez will bury the winning goal to advance Atletico to the quarterfinals once again.
Aggregate prediction: Atletico Madrid 2 Chelsea 1 (ET)