There was a moment midway through the second half in Madrid when Luka Modric glanced around in search of support that wasn’t there, leaving the rattled Croatian looking every inch an ageing 35-year-old. Not many teams do that to Modric, one of the greatest midfielders in the last decade of European football. But Thomas Tuchel’s tactically brilliant Chelsea did, on a night when they made Real Madrid look pretty average at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano.
Chelsea were ninth when Tuchel arrived in west London to replace Frank Lampard back in late January. But fast forward three months to the present day and the club aren’t only within touching distance of a top-four Premier League finish and a place in the Champions League final, but they are also looking like a side that the rest of Europe should fear for seasons to come.
There can’t be many left who feel that Chelsea made the wrong choice in removing Lampard from his post at the turn of the year in favour of Tuchel. And that number will be even smaller after a night in Madrid that saw Chelsea outplay one of the form teams in Europe across 90 minutes.
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Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel reacts during the Champions League semi-final first leg against Real Madrid.
Image credit: Getty Images
Quality of personnel is never likely to be an issue in Chelsea’s expensively-assembled squad. But Tuchel is getting his players to play like a well-oiled machine rather than the collection of stars that has sometimes been the case at Stamford Bridge.
Speaking ahead of the game in Madrid, Tuchel explained what he was expecting from his side, saying: “We want to play with hunger, enthusiasm and we want to impose our style of play, our intensity and our quality. I trust my team because we can arrive here with a lot of self-confidence, because we proved in many different competitions and in many different games that we are capable of playing at a high level and this is what we need today."
A high level is exactly what Chelsea produced in the first half of this Champions League semi-final first leg, outclassing Madrid and dominating for much of an exciting opening 45 minutes.
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Christian Pulisic’s clever run, touch and finish on 14 minutes was the least that the visitors deserved from their impressive start, and it was notable that Real Madrid’s much-heralded trio of Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro were repeatedly left overrun by Chelsea’s cleverly-organised midfield.
Tuchel set Chelsea up with a back three, overloading the flanks as Mount and Pulisic linked up with their wing-backs on each flank, covered by the hard-working N’Golo Kante and Jorginho and the impressive central defensive trio behind. It was a system that frequently left Modric and Kroos having to deal with three-on-one mismatches on the flanks.
Some of the blame for that must fall on Zinedine Zidane, who unexpectedly switched to a back-three to match up with Chelsea, a formation change that never seemed to suit either his centre-backs or wing-backs in a disjointed display from the home side. But Tuchel either saw it coming or adapted in-game to ruthlessly exploit Real’s weakness, and it could (and should) have led to more than a 1-1 draw.
Karim Benzema’s moment of magic midway through the first half gave Real a foothold in the game, and the hosts coped better after the break, happy to head to England with the tie level at 1-1 after a game that they could easily have lost.
But, in the second half, Tuchel again showed that he’s not a manager lacking in courage of his convictions, making a triple substitution at precisely the right moment to inject a burst of energy into the game. It didn’t reap rewards on this occasion, but in three months Tuchel has surely proven that, under his tutelage, this talented Chelsea squad can fulfil their enormous potential.
This draw means that the German has still lost just two of the 21 games since his arrival. But while that is an astonishing record, it still feels like just the start of something special at Chelsea. The rest of Europe should beware.
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