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On song? Chelsea conductor Thomas Tuchel needs his orchestra to hit new high notes after Champions League win over Atletico Madrid

On song? Chelsea conductor Thomas Tuchel needs his orchestra to hit new high notes after Champions League win over Atletico Madrid
New Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel is desperate to shape his newly-inherited band of brothers into a force to be reckoned with. Leading a side who have scaled immense highs and humbling lows, his Atletico test could define his impact.

Tuchel had a particular glint in his eye during his pre-match interview ahead of Chelsea’s Champions League round of 16 first leg on Tuesday.

The insight into his workings that he was about to produce will not be remembered as an antidote to almost uniformly bland interviews with managers in the age of endless scrutiny on social media, but it was clear that he was pleased with it.

Chelsea are, Tuchel quietly explained, akin to an orchestra under his leadership, with every part requiring careful tutelage and gradual, intricate tweaking in order to become something larger than its players, nurturing its abundant talents.

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Tuchel looked even more pleased after the 1-0 win in Bucharest, as well he might have done following the finest result of his highly promising early tenure. He duly brought out his musical comparison again, providing a sense that he had spent a significant amount of time plotting his words, as if composing a line to explain to children how quantum physics works.

If nothing else, it was a marginally more interesting way of repeating the fact that having a vast array of expensive stars to work with requires a delicate balancing act that demands time and doesn’t always lead to results.

Yet as obvious as the correlation is, there can be little denying the aptness of the likening in relation to Chelsea’s season. Without wishing to labor the metaphor any further – and that is a real risk across the rest of the season, given Tuchel’s demeanor and pleasure at using it – predecessor Frank Lampard’s problem in his final weeks in the job was his inability to draw a tune from an outstanding cast who have looked more like struggling soloists than a fluently powerful collective for sections of the campaign.

If it is not impossible to imagine Chelsea having achieved a similar result against Atletico under Lampard, then it is certainly easy to imagine the Spaniards winning the game a month or two ago.

That is less a criticism of the unfortunate rookie coach than a reflection of the fact that Diego Simeone, the abrasive Atletico boss who is as wily a manager as there may ever be, has had the better of many a great opposition manager through his side’s combination of spoiling, cunning and killer instinct. Runaway leaders at the top of La Liga, Atletico have formidable Champions League pedigree.

Chelsea needed luck on Tuesday, surviving after gifting the likes of the predatory Luis Suarez and $137 million livewire Joao Felix openings to inflict damage. At the same time, there was a streetwise sensibility without which they could have folded on a night when fans and players would probably have been happy to escape with a narrow defeat beforehand.

Olivier Giroud’s brilliant winner was not undeserved, and it is feasible that any weight they felt from their previous eight-match winless run in Champions League knockout matches has been greatly eased by ending that dismal record against the most exacting of rivals.

Just as it has put Chelsea halfway to the quarterfinals, so it has put Tuchel within distance of a result that would finally represent an undeniable gold-standard win. No coach goes eight matches unbeaten without doing something right, but Tuchel cannot refute that he has had a kind run of fixtures to start his reign, with the best win coming at a Tottenham side who, were they an orchestra, would currently be struggling to read the notes on a set of scores rapidly disappearing in flames.

Chelsea have already shown this season that they can move from harmonious to disastrous at impressive speed: less than two months before Lampard was brutally axed, they were on a 15-match unbeaten run in the Champions League and Premier League, conceding one goal in seven games as part of a steadfastness that included five clean sheets in a row.

The second leg against Atletico could curtail talk of progress by going horribly wrong, and quickly: Liverpool went ahead on the night in extra time against Simeone’s side at Anfield at this stage of the competition last season, only to be obliterated by three goals in 14 minutes as their visitors rampaged to a 4-2 aggregate win. Given how Atletico can twist the knife, it is hard not to feel that it would be a sign of more than luck if Chelsea can finish the job.

Advancing to the final eight would provide the statement achievement that has so far been missing amid increasing optimism that Tuchel can transform Chelsea, and represent immediate, tangible progress compared to the 7-1 mauling they endured against Bayern Munich in the round of 16 last season.

Lampard’s fate showed how quickly their fortunes can turn, and it is quite conceivable that one confidence-challenging result could herald the kind of form that saw them win two league games from eight around the turn of the year.

For now, self-proclaimed conductor Tuchel has rediscovered a resilience at Chelsea that has, on early evidence, the potential to make them genuine contenders in Europe and the Premier League once more. When Atletico visit them on 17 March, it will tell us a lot about how much that idea flatters the manager's impact.

By Ben Miller

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