José Mourinho's side face a team that, like Chelsea, specialise in stifling opponents and hitting them on the break
A clap of thunder had rumbled over Cobham as Chelsea's players emerged into the drizzle for training. Petr Cech was the surprise presence in the first group of squad members, drawing the focus even if the shoulder dislocated last week will deny him any involvement against Atlético Madrid in the return leg of the Champions league semi-final. José Mourinho sidled by virtually unnoticed, his notes protected in an A4 plastic sleeve, while the ominous fanfare echoed overhead. It was as if the manager was using his goalkeeper as a decoy.
Mourinho rarely lingers out of the limelight and, at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, he will return to centre stage. The Spanish league leaders arrive with this tie goalless and in the balance, the home manager's task to devise a way of puncturing the most Chelsea-like of opponents – stingy counterattackers who are two victories from claiming La Liga – and propel the club into a third European Cup final. If Sunday's victory at Liverpool had demonstrated the Portuguese's ability to conjure unlikely wins from daunting occasions, then semi-finals in this competition have chipped away at his reputation as a big-game mastermind. A two-times winner he may be, but he and Chelsea have stumbled too often at this point.
That, of course, is as much a reflection of the calibre of opposition in the elite as a criticism of Chelsea and their manager, but it still adds motivation. By steering a team into an eighth semi-final – a remarkable achievement across 10 campaigns – Mourinho eclipsed Sir Alex Ferguson's previous record of seven. Indeed, the Portuguese has overseen a side at this stage in each of the past five seasons but, other than with Internazionale in 2010, his involvement has ceased here: Barcelona, Bayern Munich (on penalties) and Borussia Dortmund prevailed against his Real Madrid, with Atlético now barring passage to a Lisbon homecoming on 24 May.
"They not a counterattacking side, they're a good side," he said. "They defend well. They score goals. They win matches. A very good team. There are some matches that are 'special', and the match every player wants to play is the Champions League final. After that, the next best game is the second leg of the Champions League semi-final. So we have to enjoy it. After the game, let's see if we go to Lisbon or not. I will go for sure in the summer anyway. But let's see if we can go together."
Chelsea have their own spectres to exorcise at this stage, the glorious memories of Liverpool in 2008 or Barcelona four years later counterbalanced by "ghost" goals, penalty shoot-outs, the idiosyncrasies of a Tinkerman and the oversights of Tom Henning Ovrebo.
They are, at least, a squad focused and united. Cech's presence at training was merely to fuel a sense of togetherness given the significant role he has played in Chelsea reaching this stage for the seventh time in a decade. He warmed up with his team-mates, wincing whenever attempting to roll his right arm and clearly unable to lift the limb above shoulder height. Mark Schwarzer will continue in his absence but there were other positives to be taken from the session. Eden Hazard is fit and available after the calf problem sustained against Paris Saint-Germain, the Belgian scuttling through a practice game with relish. He would add a flash of invention and creativity to what is a potentially suffocatingly tight tie.
He may expect to line up alongside Oscar and Willian in the forward-thinking trio behind Samuel Eto'o, who also took part after a knee problem, with Frank Lampard and Mikel John Obi suspended. Mourinho's selection dilemma concerns a luxury of options at the back, with John Terry to start having recovered from the ankle injury sustained at the Vicente Calderón. The captain even slammed a penalty beyond Schwarzer in a shootout drill at the end of the session. He has his own motivation to reach another Champions League final after his personal trauma in Moscow in 2008 and absence in Munich four years later.
"I didn't think I'd have another chance after Moscow, if I'm honest," the captain said. "Then the opportunity came about with Munich and I ended up missing it. I had the shirt from Moscow up in my house for a while, and for a long time it served as motivation, but I took it down after we won the trophy. The happy memories tend to outweigh the disappointing ones. Look at the long-serving players here, Ashley [Cole], Frank, Petr … it means the world to us to be in this position again. The desire within the squad is exceptional. Reaching another final would, in itself, be another great achievement."
Cole expects to start, though that conviction is intriguing given it would have implications, presumably, for Branislav Ivanovic – who was suspended in Spain but is normally a mainstay of this side – or potentially one of the trio of attackers if the left-back is to be thrust into a berth further upfield. Yet using the full-back there would surely blunt Chelsea's approach against a team who have not conceded since they playing Barça in the first leg of the quarter-final on 1 April.
Atlético's record in England is poor, with a solitary win in nine visits, against Leicester City in the Uefa Cup in 1998, but they are an emerging force. Unbeaten in this competition this season, they need only a score draw to progress but have won 1-0 against Real Madrid, Barcelona and Milan this season.
They have triumphed by that slender scoreline nine times and kept 28 clean sheets in all competitions, including 11 away from home. Their strength is obvious, their threat on the counterattack considerable. "It will be a game of small details, a game where maybe one goal is the difference," added Mourinho. "But I trust my players. I trust them a lot, and that helps me to stay calm." Regardless, a momentous evening awaits.