London (AFP) – Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel revealed he is such a fan of Luis Suarez that he tried to sign the Uruguayan for Paris Saint-Germain before he made the move from Barcelona to Atletico Madrid in September.
And Atletico coach Diego Simeone admitted on Monday that Suarez could be key to his side’s hopes of beating Chelsea in the Champions League last 16.
Seven games into his reign as Chelsea manager, Tuchel remains unbeaten, with the Londoners fifth in the Premier League and into the FA Cup quarter-finals.
However, the German is aware he faces his biggest challenge yet against an Atletico side with bags of experience in knockout Champions League ties under Simeone.
“This is for sure a big test — sporting, mentally and physically,” Tuchel said on Monday. “This is a very experienced club at this level, a very experienced and tough coach to play against.
“It’s clear when you play against Atletico what you get. You get hard fighting and there are many teams who have experienced this.”
Atletico’s style has evolved this season, though, to accomodate a range of attacking options including Suarez, Joao Felix and Marcos Llorente.
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Suarez is La Liga’s joint top goalscorer alongside former teammate and close friend Lionel Messi, suggesting that Barcelona’s desire to offload the 34-year-old was hasty.
Tuchel, then PSG boss, was keen to reunite Suarez with another departed Barca superstar — Neymar — to form a frightening front three also featuring Kylian Mbappe.
“There was a possibility,” Tuchel said. “We heard the rumours he was about to leave Barcelona and who cannot be interested to sign one of the best strikers in world football, in history and the present?
“We tried our luck. We did not make it, he chose to stay in Spain with Atletico and again he proves his quality.
“He is a natural-born striker. He has the certain mentality that only strikers have. This mentality to show his will, intensity and anger to score and score and score and is never satisfied.
“What a mentality! What a player!”
Simeone said on Monday that Suarez has given Atletico belief. “For all the competitions, not just the Champions League, his presence gives us experience and leadership,” Simeone said.
“He brings confidence to our team and a lot of tension for our opponents because history shows this is a player who has a gift around the goal.”
Suarez has a history with Chelsea too. One of his three high-profile biting incidents left its mark on former Blues defender Branislav Ivanovic during Suarez’s time in England with Liverpool.
Tuchel, though, insisted Chelsea have to focus on the present rather than settling old scores.
“For me it’s never a good thing to look too far behind,” he said.
“We look forward and we play him tomorrow. We know about his qualities, we will be aware of it and we try to stop him from scoring.”
The match will take place in Bucharest rather than Madrid due to coronavirus travel restrictions.
And Tuchel accepted that an away leg at a neutral venue was an advantage to his side, with the away goals rule still in operation.
“Clearly, yes it is a disadvantage for Atletico to lose their home ground,” Tuchel said. “We don’t have to talk around that.”
“We have to worry about the game, not about things we cannot solve,” Simeone added. “In the world we live in today, with all the difficulties for everybody, we’re just lucky to be able to play football, wherever that might be.”