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Chelsea is England’s best hope for winning the Champions League

After years of Premier League underachievement, Chelsea looks ready to challenge Europe’s elite.

Atletico Madrid v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Chelsea defeated Atlético Madrid with truly the last strike of the ball on Wednesday, with the referee letting out a game-ending double whistle the second Michy Batshuayi’s shot hit the back of the net, not even allowing Atléti a chance for a ceremonial kickoff. The winning goal was stunning, with Chelsea’s supposedly defensive midfielders N’Golo Kanté and Tiémoué Bakayoko combining beautifully to get the ball to Marcos Alonso, who squared for Batshuayi to finish off a sequence of quick one-touch plays.

Having snagged a 2-1 win in the 94th minute, Chelsea appeared to be somewhat lucky winners over Atléti. But Antonio Conte made the right pregame tactical decisions, the right late subs, and Chelsea was the better team throughout the match.

Beating Atléti away from home is always a great result, but it’s especially encouraging for Chelsea given that it represents a continuation of great play in big games under Conte, while new signings Bakayoko and Álvaro Morata built on their recent solid Premier League performances as well. Chelsea looks good in the same ways it did last season, but with some small upgrades, and appears ready to challenge Europe’s elite.

Batshuayi’s winner was no fluke

The Blues should have won the game earlier, and would have if not for some bad luck.

Chelsea only went behind in the first place because of a dodgy penalty call. David Luiz was whistled for a foul in the box for taking down Lucas Hernández, though he clearly didn’t make a lot of contact, and Lucas went down easily.

But the Blues’ two goals after that were well deserved, and they prevented Atlético Madrid from creating dangerous chances too. By Expected Goals, Chelsea looks like the superior side, and might have scored more with sharper finishing or a keeper inferior to Jan Oblak in net for Atléti.

Antonio Conte made the right decisions; Diego Simeone did not

Simeone decided to fight fire with fire in the center of the park, benching his 34-year-old captain Gabi for the younger and more athletic Thomas Partey. While Atléti didn’t miss anything in the way of ball-retention as you might have expected — Partey kept the ball superbly — he offered very little defensively. His positioning was poor, especially by the standards of an Atléti central midfielder, and he only won the ball back for his team once in his 76 minutes on the pitch.

But when Simeone decided to take Partey off the pitch, it wasn’t for Gabi. Instead, it was for defender Jose Giménez, who didn’t solidify Atléti’s back line and secure a point like Simeone had hoped.

Conte, on the other hand, made great decisions. Morata and Eden Hazard worked well as a pair up top in a 3-5-2 all game, but their replacements Batshuayi and Willian won the game with their fresh legs and work rate. Bringing in Andreas Christiensen for Cesc Fàbregas and moving David Luiz to a defensive midfield role, allowing Kanté and Bakayoko to press and run forward more aggressively, turned out to be a great move as well.

Bakayoko looks like a brilliant signing

A big factor in Chelsea’s performance was Kanté and Bakayoko outplaying their counterparts Koké and Thomas Partey in the center of the park. The new duo is working out so well that Chelsea fans cooked up this fantastic song to the tune of “September” by Earth, Wind and Fire.

Kanté and Bakayoko bossed the midfield with 10 tackles and four interceptions between them, but it was their work on the ball more than defensively that impressed. Besides their silky contributions to the winning goal, the pair kept the ball moving superbly throughout the match and avoided bad turnovers in midfield, completing 85 percent of their passes collectively and spraying the ball all over the pitch. Here’s what their passing looked like, from Squawka’s match center.

Squawka — Atlético Madrid vs. Chelsea

This game marked a continuation of what Chelsea’s midfield duo has been doing in the Premier League as well. Check out this play from Chelsea’s 4-0 win over Stoke last Saturday.

Chelsea can look ahead to bigger things

A win with two away goals at Atléti puts Chelsea firmly in control of Group C. A pair of tricky matches awaits against AS Roma, but the Giallorossi are still very much a work in progress under new manager Eusebio Di Francesco, after a summer where eight new senior players joined the club. It would now be very surprising if Chelsea did not win its group.

Amidst all the worries about English clubs failing to be competitive in Champions League despite all the money they spend, Chelsea looks well-equipped to give the top sides in Europe problems this season. Conte has taken a team to the Champions League final before, the Blues dominated the Premier League with less talent last season, and seriously outplaying Atléti in Madrid is no small feat. At the same time, Bayern Munich is a mess, Barcelona got worse over the summer, Real Madrid is currently out of form, and Paris Saint-Germain is in the first year of its effort to take over the world in earnest.

Chelsea is the Premier League’s best hope in the Champions League, and the league’s first legitimate hope to win the tournament since the Blues themselves made the semifinal in 2014.