REAL MADRID VS CHELSEA: 5 THINGS WE LEARNED
While the world backed Real Madrid to dismantle Chelsea like they brushed aside Liverpool in the quarter-finals, Thomas Tuchel’s men silenced their doubters and on the balance of play, deserved a famous victory in Madrid. With Christian Pulisic opening the scoring for the Blues, Los Blancos needed an exceptional Karim Benzema equalizer to remind Chelsea they were down but not out.
In an intriguing tactical battle where both Zidane and Tuchel operated for a 3-man defence, amongst other things, MTAG: More Than A Game discuss the 5 things we learned from the 1st leg of the first Champions League semi-final.
N’Golo Kante reminds the world that no one does what he does
In the build-up to the contest, the majority were favouring Casemiro to N’Golo Kante and based on form this season, that isn’t a wild statement. But after witnessing a midfield monsterclass where the Frenchman dominated the legendary Kroos-Modric-Casemiro midfield, all you can do is bow down to the king.
Kante won the ball, broke forward and kicked off Chelsea’s counter all night. What can’t this man do? Today was proof that what Mauricio Sarri had added to the Frenchman’s game made him more than just a ball-winner because he was a nuisance in both defence and attack. It’s not everyday that you see N’Golo drive up in the final third and cause an immediate attacking threat to an opponent, but with the form he’s in, the fans would’ve been drooling watching the Madrid midfield not get anywhere near the World Cup winner.
To put things into context, Kante had more take-ons than any player on the pitch (6). And won 21 duels while he’s at it.
A Man of the Match performance isn’t enough to define one of the most complete performances in the middle of park you’re guaranteed to see for a long time.
Zidane could not have been more unpredictable
Zinedine Zidane has got to be one of the most unpredictable managers in world football. In one of the most important matches of the season, the Real Madrid boss decided to opt for a 3 at the back system out of nowhere. Even though the side has operated in this setup at times off late (thanks to the never-ending injury crisis), the players were never really able to fully settle into this shape.
One could understand the Frenchman’s thought process behind his decision to go for such a formation – most likely to match Chelsea man-for-man, however, the first half performance by the team definitely left every Madridista worried.
Throughout the first 45 mins, Chelsea dominated the proceedings, winning every dual, intercepting lacklustre passes and creating some very dangerous chances.
The likes of Modric, Kroos, Marcelo, all very experienced personnel, looked thoroughly out of place. During almost the entirety of Madrid’s build-up, one could see Kroos playing almost as a centre-back, Marcelo and Carvajal playing as extremely inverted wing-backs and Casemiro positioning himself right behind the striker. At times, even Nacho took that left wing-back space with Marcelo coming infield. Unsurprisingly, this system was a little all over the place and didn’t lead to Los Blancos either being productive going forward or structured at the back.
While the team appeared a lot calmer on the ball in the second half, the French gaffer kept the same shape throughout the game. Expect a host of changes in the 2nd leg as well.
If Chelsea weren’t firing blanks, Madrid would have been massacred
I predicted a 1-1 draw and that’s exactly how the game finished. And to be honest, it should’ve been Chelsea’s for the taking. Those first 20 mins of the match were just shaky from Los Blancos. A clear lack of communication amongst the back 3 made it light work for the London outfit with so much room for the Blues to wreak havoc.
Madrid’s only viable threats came from Kroos’ set pieces and Karim Benzema’s incredible goal was a bi-product of that. If Timo Werner didn’t continue to look a shadow of his former self and certain passes left played astray by Kante on the break could have been that tad more efficient, Chelsea would have run away with this game.
Taking it back to the bridge in the 2nd leg, they have to be more ruthless to avoid a Madrid mauling; after all, this is the greatest ever team in the Champions League. But the performance proved that there’s more than enough for Tuchel’s troops to repeat this in the 2nd leg and ensure Instanbul beckons.
Starting Marcelo in the 2nd leg is playing with fire
One of the points of concern in the minds of Real Madrid fans before the 1st leg fixture was the recent injury to Ferland Mendy and the possible return of their legendary Brazilian fullback. Having hardly started any games this season, Marcelo is a player who Zidane absolutely does not trust to occupy the left-back role anymore. Time and again, the manager has seen how big of a liability the mercurial veteran can be, especially in high intensity matches.
But of course, since you cannot rule anything out with Zidane, we were able to get a glimpse of Marcelo in a challenging setting. Playing as part of a 5-man midfield, the experienced left-back was, once again, a liability. Marcelo played as an inverted winger,a wing-back and in some cases, in a Cancelo-esque role and on several occasions, positioned much higher up the pitch than the likes of Kroos, Modric and Casemiro. Being almost as high as Vinicus and sometimes as inverted as Casemiro, Marcelo’s positioning let the team’s left side down considerably, apart from his usual slow tracking back. .
If this was 2017 again, you’d expect most of the build-up play going through him but unfortunately, the Brazilian is way past his prime. One attribute that still remains in his skill set is his dangerous crossing, which was again on showcase today, as it was his crossfield pass into the box which eventually led to the opener.
It remains to be seen whether Ferland Mendy will be fit enough to join back the squad before the 2nd leg. If he is unable to, Marcelo’s audition to start the game at Stamford Bridge hasn’t been inspiring to say the least.
Tuchel trusts his squad
Despite the rollercoaster season Chelsea have undergone, there has never been any doubt about the fact that the squad at their disposal is top drawer. And against Madrid, Tuchel had his pick of seasoned vets he could trust to put their lives on the line as well as those lot that lacked experience but also any tinge of fear about the occasion.
Cesar Azpilicueta started as a right wing-back instead of the adventurous Reece James and his experienced paid dividends on the night. While certain Chelsea fans would have anxious at this prospect pre-match, they had no reasons to worry as someone like Christensen, who has only established himself under Tuchel always provided cover in ice-cool fashion. Christian Pulisic is only 22 years old but it simply doesn’t mean a thing because he’s clearly destined for the top and he couldn’t have been any better on the night and his goal was just an added bonus to a stellar display.
You can say the same for Mason Mount who once again looked like the best player on the pitch in the initial quarter of the contest. And then there’s someone like Toni Rudiger who played the pass of the match for Pulisic and pressed the life out of Madrid throughout the clash.
All in all, Tuchel has options galore for the 2nd leg and can tinker enough to get the best result in West London.