Saul scores for Atleti at Stamford Bridge. Photo: PA

IN THE end, it was a result that didn’t suit either team: Chelsea needed to win to top the group, Atletico Madrid had to snare three points to have any chance of staying in the UEFA Champions League. As it turned out, the most important result was in the Italian capital, where Roma beat Qarabag 1-0 to capture the group. Chelsea finished second and Atleti missed out by four points. Thursday night football for a club that has reached two Champions League finals in the past four seasons.

While Chelsea move slightly nervously forward out of a group in which they have laboured to win games they should have put beyond the opposition, Atletico have to reflect on the passing of time. Their team is moving towards a rebuilding phase, something that’s not beyond a club that has reinvented itself a few times in recent years after losing player-after-player. All is certainly not lost, though, for Atletico can certainly win the Europa League, a competition that helped make their reputation in 2010 and 2012.

Atletico have had a transfer ban slapped on them and in the summer of 2017, they were unable to sign any new players after being charged by FIFA that they had breached rules over the signing of minors. Despite claiming this was unfair and would cause damage on the club, the ban was upheld in the Court of Arbitration for Sport. At Stamford Bridge, the noisy and joyous Atletico crowd jeered the UEFA anthem as the teams prepared to kick-off.

Even without new signings, Atletico have a very capable squad and they have Diego Costa back in the new year after rejoining from Chelsea. It is difficult to agree with the view of some commentators claiming the team had grown old. True, Fernando Torres, who was well received by his old club (Chelsea are good at welcoming former players) is 33, Gabi 34 and Felipe Luis 31, but the average age of the rest of the squad used at Chelsea was just 23 and change. And they do have the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Koke.

Some said Atletico have not had a good season and there does seem to be something missing, a certain energy and enthusiasm that was their trademark in recent years. Griezmann, valued at € 150m by CIES Football Observatory, was strangely quiet for one of Europe’s most coveted players – we might have expected more. On the night, and on recent form, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, who will be equally courted in the coming months, looked far better value. Hazard was the one player who looked as though he might create something out of the ordinary, and he was responsible for Chelsea’s equaliser when he received the ball on the left side, accelerated and sent over a cross of such power that Stefan Savic could only pinball it into the net. Earlier, Saul had headed Atletico in front, but the news from Rome was already pointing towards Europa by then.

While Atletico will eye the last 32 of UEFA’s ugly duckling as a consolation prize, they will probably return to the Champions League soon enough. They are, after all, unbeaten in La Liga this season and they will instantly become one of the favourites for the Europa, along with the likes of Arsenal.  For a club under a ban and playing in a new stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano, that wouldn’t be such a bad campaign.

As for Chelsea, they could land a really fearsome last 16 tie in the Champions League given they are in pot 2 and will be drawn against a group winner. If four English teams win their group, that would leave the prospect of Barcelona, Paris St. Germain or Besiktas. No prizes for guessing which one the Stamford Bridge grandees will be hoping for.

Meanwhile, Atletico are putting a positive spin on their European campaign. Manager Diego Simeone commented after the Chelsea match: “I think this could be a new challenge. Everything that is bad, we make it into a positive…we knew this could happen and it is only a failure when you have an objective and you don’t reach it. This is not failure for us.”

What next then? Atletico are third in La Liga, their only defeat this season was, ironically, against Chelsea in the Wanda. They have developed a penchant for draws – six of their 14 league games –  and they’ve been lacking on the goalscoring front. It’s unlikely they will challenge for the title given Barcelona’s form and Valencia’s resurgence, but they surely have enough to qualify for the UCL. With the January window looming, there will be talk once more of a Griezmann move and indeed, the future of Simeone himself will be on the agenda, but Costa’s return will add some aggression and goal power to their line-up.

Champions League elimination, especially after two finals in 2014 and 2016, may be one of those hollow-stomach moments in modern football, but it is easy to adopt Simeone’s optimistic tone. This is a club that has wealthy backers, a big stadium that is averaging 62,000 this season –  only just lower than both Real and Barca – and possesses some of the Europe’s most wanted players, as well as a sought-after manager. Certainly, their fans were not too downcast, judging by their post-match performance. Atletico will be back, and their European campaign may still end with something to show for it.

Atletico’s current season and the past five

  La Liga Copa del Rey UCL Top Scorer Attendances
2017-18 3rd *R16 Group Antoine Griezmann 7 62,260
2016-17 3rd SF SF Antoine Griezmann 26 44,710
2015-16 3rd QF Final Antoine Griezmann 32 47,113
2014-15 3rd QF QF Antoine Griezmann 25 46,532
2013-14 1st QF Final Diego Costa 36 46,247
2012-13 3rd Winners Rademel Falcao 34 44,296