Chelsea and Atletico Madrid look to Kai Havertz and Joao Felix for attacking inspiration in Champions League

London club hold 1-0 lead going into Wednesday's last-16 second-leg clash at Stamford Bridge

It has been a fine Champions League so far for prodigies. Erling Braut Haaland, 20, streaks clear of Kylian Mbappe, 21, at the top of the 2020-21 goalscorers’ list, while envious superclubs calculate how much more than €100 million ($119m) could possibly extract either striker from Borussia Dortmund or Paris Saint-Germain this summer.

The going rate for a brilliant 21-year-old may not be what it used to be, in these straightened financial times of pandemic, but it was still set high last summer when Chelsea agreed a fee with Bayer Leverkusen of €80m for Kai Havertz.

It's a sum that, six months into Havertz's career in London, weighs heavily. He has to scroll all the way back to October for his only Premier League goal, in a 3-3 draw at home to Southampton.

He has faced various challenges, including a debilitating period after a Covid-19 infection, and a change of manager, from Frank Lampard to Thomas Tuchel. If the signs are that Tuchel has a clear, fresh plan for the young German, absolute faith has yet to be earned.

Havertz’s role in the most important Champions League fixture of Chelsea’s season, the first leg of their last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid, was a three-minute cameo as a late substitute.

One contemporary would have some sympathy with the pressures on Havertz. Atletico’s Joao Felix, who moved from Benfica in 2019 as the most expensive signing, some €120m, in the Madrid club’s history, turned 21 last November with judgement on his value still under debate. When Atletico manager Diego Simeone chose his XI for the quarter-final of the Champions League last season, Felix only started on the bench.

But there seems little doubt the Portuguese will begin Wednesday's second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Faith in Felix has grown in the last six months, and Atletico need their potential matchwinners.

Trailing 1-0 because of a stunning goal from Chelsea's reliable elder statesman Olivier Giroud in the first leg, Simeone is obliged to be proactive. These are circumstances in which Felix's cutting edge, his eye for the splitting pass, his skill in the duel seem essential.

There is the memory, too, of how Felix rose to the big European occasion in his fluctuating first season at Atletico. There was the poise he showed at Anfield to set up the first of Marcos Llorente's two extra-time goals in the remarkable comeback to defeat Liverpool in the last-16. Summoned from the bench against RB Leipzig in the next round, he earned and scored a penalty but still finished on the losing side.


Atletico 0 Chelsea 1: player ratings from first leg


Felix’s brace against Salzburg in this season’s group phase were crucial goals as they turned around a 2-1 lead to the Austrians.

The display prompted Simeone to call that match the player's most "complete performance" since he joined. There have been important contributions to hoisting Atletico to the top of la Liga, but no guarantees from Simeone that Felix will always be the first choice of attacking partner to Luis Suarez. He was left out of the XI for the Madrid derby 11 days ago.

“In any aspect of life, there will be good phases and not such good ones,” Felix acknowledged on Tuesday, “and I am happy here.” Nor should anyone question his drive, he added. “You don’t get anywhere without desire. There are lots of very talented players who didn’t make it to the top because they didn’t show the desire. I don’t what that to happen to me.”

To which there was a nod of approval from his coach. “He has the desire,” said Simeone, who, in a strong indication that Felix would be involved from kick-off against Chelsea, approved the choice of Felix to share pre-match press conference duties. “He’s very important to us and we need him.”

Havertz, a footballer with some of the wiry elegance of Felix, approaches the fixture with less assurance of a starting place.

Tuchel has been pushing Havertz further forward in recent Premier League matches, talking up how “comfortable” the Germany international is “in high positions, dropping into half-spaces, using his speed,” but the theory has not yet yielded a cascade of goals.

"It's not easy to score in this league," Havertz said after Saturday's 0-0 draw with Leeds United, "and I have to improve my game, no excuses."

The case for Giroud at the sharp point of Chelsea’s attack, in the absence of Tammy Abraham – still recovering from an ankle problem – is compelling, although the absence of Mason Mount, suspended, opens up an attacking spot, with two of Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech and Havertz in the frame to complete Chelsea’s front three.