London – Chelsea's supposed tenderness has been used as a smokescreen by manager Jose Mourinho this season, but their Champions League elimination by Atletico Madrid proved they remain a work in progress.
The claim that Chelsea are not yet ready to challenge for major honours has at times provided a convenient excuse for Mourinho, who is fond of depicting his lavishly assembled squad as a group of eager novices.
Wednesday's 3-1 semi-final loss revealed real shortcomings though, and while Chelsea were made to pay for some costly defensive errors, Mourinho's tactical approach was, for once, not beyond reproach either.
The Portuguese had been lauded, if begrudgingly, after masterminding a counter-attacking 2-0 win at Liverpool last Sunday, but against Atletico Chelsea needed to take the initiative, and they struggled.
With the score 1-1 at half-time and Atletico ahead on away goals, the onus was on Chelsea to attack in the second half, but instead it was the visitors who made the early running.
Mark Schwarzer had to save from Arda Turan and Tiago Mendes, and although John Terry then forced Thibaut Courtois into a fine save at the other end, Diego Costa's 60th-minute penalty effectively ended the tie.
“Chelsea needed to score,” said Atletico coach Diego Simeone.
“We knew they'd probably bring on another striker, which allowed us to bring in five midfielders. It left us a lot more space to control the game.”
While Chelsea possess plenty of talented attackers, they have been schooled almost exclusively in the art of the counter-attack, and when the circumstances demanded an onslaught, they seemed to freeze.
“Chelsea aren't made for playing football, but for playing on the counter-attack, like Real Madrid did against Bayern Munich,” winger Eden Hazard told French broadcaster beIN Sports.
“It's pretty much our tactic that works the best.”
Chelsea were also the architects of their own downfall in defence, where errors played a part in all three Atletico goals.
The Spaniards' equaliser came after Ashley Cole allowed Juanfran to ghost into space behind him before dispatching a volleyed cross that Adrian Lopez converted.
Costa won the penalty after a clumsy swipe by Samuel Eto'o and for the third goal, Cesar Azpilicueta lost sight of Juanfran, who crossed for Turan to score at the second attempt.
Surprisingly deployed in a right-wing role, Azpilicueta had created Fernando Torres's 36th-minute opener, but it proved a rare tactical success on the night for Mourinho.
Chelsea's deficiencies in the striking department – a frequent Mourinho bugbear – were also apparent, with the hosts mustering only five shots on target to Atletico's eight.
While Torres was rewarded for an industrious performance with a goal, Mourinho's three strikers – Torres, Eto'o and Demba Ba – have between them amassed six fewer goals this season (30) than Costa (36).
Unable to ignore the gulf between the two teams, Mourinho was unusually gracious in defeat, describing Atletico as “a very, very good side” and “a real team”.
With Terry, Hazard and Eto'o only half-fit, goalkeeper Petr Cech injured, Frank Lampard and John Mikel Obi suspended, and Nemanja Matic and Mohamed Salah cup-tied, this was also a far from full-strength Chelsea.
“I can't be critical of a group of players who are trying everything,” Mourinho said.
“We have problems with injuries, suspensions and players who can't play in the Champions League. It's disappointing to lose, but I am proud of them.”
Chelsea are two points behind Liverpool in the Premier League with two matches to play, so silverware looks destined to elude Mourinho, but he will draw encouragement from the first season of his second coming at Stamford Bridge.
Having come so close to delivering a famous trophy double, he will now expect to be backed in the close-season transfer window.
Costa is rumoured to be among his targets, but whoever arrives, next season's Chelsea are likely to be a much less forgiving beast. – Sapa-AFP