BUCHAREST (AFP) – Olivier Giroud’s magnificent bicycle kick broke Atletico Madrid’s resistance and earned Chelsea a crucial away goal early yesterday, a 1-0 victory giving Thomas Tuchel’s side a slender advantage in the Champions League last 16.
Giroud’s acrobatic strike was initially ruled out for offside but stood after VAR showed Mario Hermoso had got the final touch, delivering a huge blow to Atletico’s hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.
“I didn’t know what to think about the goal, I just focussed on hitting the ball,” said Giroud. “I love an overhead kick and I was just pleased to see the ball hit the back of the net. I had no clue about being offside or not.”
Diego Simeone’s side had put on a typically disciplined defensive performance until that point but Giroud’s moment of genius means they will have to score in London on March 17 if they are to avoid an early exit. It also continues a worrying dip for Atletico, whose lead in La Liga is also under threat after one win in four matches.
“If you’d said to me in September we’d lose this first leg 1-0 and be top of the league, I’d have signed for that for sure,” said Simeone.
“The results aren’t going for us so we have to work, work and work.”
Chelsea, meanwhile, passed their biggest test since Tuchel was appointed at the end of January, backing up a strong run against lesser lights in the Premier League with a polished display against one of Europe’s elite.
“We knew their strengths and dealt with them,” said Giroud. “We need to stay focussed now and finish the job.”
Giroud’s goal in the 68th minute was only the third Atletico have conceded in 14 home legs of the Champions League knockout stages under Simeone, even if this fixture was at home only in name.
Restrictions imposed by the Spanish government meant the game had to be played in Bucharest instead of Madrid, despite the return match remaining at Stamford Bridge in three weeks’ time.
Tuchel admitted the switch gave his side an advantage but Simeone refused to complain, insisting he felt fortunate to play during the pandemic, “however and wherever that might be”.
Their defeat makes it three home losses out of three for Spain’s teams in the Champions League last 16 so far, after Barcelona were thrashed by Paris Saint-Germain and Sevilla were beaten by Borussia Dortmund last week.
Callum Hudson-Odoi started for Chelsea, despite Tuchel criticising the 20-year-old’s attitude against Southampton last Saturday.
Atletico started with Suarez, Joao Felix and Angel Correa but an attacking line-up took up a typically defensive shape, a six-man wall quickly forming in front of Chelsea in the opening stages.
The first half was tight, each side able only to create openings but failing to find the pass to make a chance.
Edouard Mendy’s heavy touch in the opening minutes almost gave the chasing Saul Niguez a tap-in while Timo Werner’s angled shot was saved by Jan Oblak and Suarez miskicked at the near post.
Chelsea looked most dangerous down the flanks, where Marcos Alonso and Hudson-Odoi pushed Atletico back. Atletico had space on the break but lacked the precision to capitalise.