There have been more prolific target-men over the years, and more combative exponents of the art, but none who have combined the prosaic parts of the job with the kind of unforgettable goals scored by that dashing Frenchman, Olivier Giroud.
His match-winning strike on this night, a glorious left-footed overhead kick against one of the most formidable defences in Europe, gave Chelsea and their new manager Thomas Tuchel, a standout victory for the new regime. This first-leg Champions League round of 16 away win against Atletico Madrid, played in Bucharest, means that in the return on March 17 in London, Chelsea will feel they have a very good chance indeed to make the final eight of the competition.
Not many English sides have found a way to beat the gloriously cynical approach of Diego Simeone at the club he has turned into a European force, and there were moments when Chelsea looked as if they too might run out of steam. Against a side that play six in defence when they are out of possession, which is how they prefer it, Tuchel’s players controlled the ball and then relied upon a moment of inspiration to win the game.
It came from Giroud. He was obliged to wait for the Video Assistant Referee Marco Fritz to decide that the last touch had been an intentional one from Atletico’s Mario Hermoso before Giroud – in an offside position – struck. His sixth Champions League goal this season puts him behind just Erling Haaland for goals in the competition. He had not started a game since the Premier League win over Sheffield United on February 7 but was the right man for this one. It was his original header won in the middle of the pitch that set Chelsea on the attack that ended in the goal.
“We were confident in our abilities, but not too confident,” Giroud said later. I didn’t know what to think about the goal [whether he was offside or not]. I just tried to focus on hitting the ball well. I love the overhead kick. I had no clue about being offside. [While the VAR review went ahead] Mason [Mount] told me he never touched the ball.”
Mount was another outstanding performer, although a booking after 55 seconds means that he misses the return leg through suspension. So too Jorginho, who picked up a yellow card as well. On Mount, Tuchel said later that the young Englishman had a big impact on the team. Now we play Man U, Liverpool, Everton, Leeds and this is good,” Tuchel said. “We cannot get too comfortable. We cannot get lazy. These games will push us to our limits and then we will think about solutions for the second game against Atletico.”
At the National Arena in the Romanian capital, Simeone’s team had not a single attempt on target. Luis Suarez certainly played his role as agent provocateur but to no avail. Atletico’s Argentine manager has been limited by injuries to the likes of winger Yannick Carrasco, and defender Jose Maria Gimenez as well as the non-availability of the suspended England international Kieran Trippier. Even so this felt like a night when Simeone’s trademark negativity just seemed to swallow the team whole.
The leaders of Spain’s Liga are not out yet but they are most certainly a hard team to watch. They defended even when there was not much to defend. They are essentially an out of possession team and when they did not have the ball their wide midfielders Angel Correa and Thomas Lemar tucked in to form a back line of six.
For Tuchel there was a big call in leaving N’Golo Kante out the starting XI for such a significant game but it worked and then on came the World Cup winner for the critical period once the goal had tempted Atletico out. Without Thiago Silva they defended well, and ended the game with 59 per cent of the possession and around twice the number of completed passes. There were chances for Timo Werner – not quite the openings that demanded a goal but enough that a more confident player might have done something with.
Then came Giroud. Mount’s skill had opened Atletico earlier but this was their best move, coming down the left before it looked as if the Spanish side would clear the ball. Hermoso made a mistake hooking it back towards his goal and Giroud flung himself at it, a clean left foot connection and then a long Var review to confirm its legitimacy.
“If you see him on a daily basis you cannot be surprised,” Tuchel said of Giroud. “He is totally fit, his body is in shape and mentally I have really the feeling that he enjoys every day being a professional soccer player at this level. This is the level he needs to be. He trains like a 24-year-old. He’s a guy who is serious with a good mix of joy in training. He’s always positive. It’s a big factor for the group when he starts or comes from the bench. He has all these qualities and it’s good.”
After defeat at home – their real home – to Levante in the league on Saturday, Simeone’s side are in a sticky patch. “If you’d have said to me in September that we would be 1-0 down after the first leg of the last 16 in the Champions League and top of the Liga,” he said, “I’d have signed up for it.” He will, no doubt, have a plan for the second leg. But Chelsea have the away goal.