Champions League: Chelsea go against the flow with defence-first approach against Real Madrid to leave semis evenly poised

Srijandeep Das
·7-min read

Thunderclaps were so loud that it could easily been an off-shore oil rig exploding into itself as the waves swallow it all up.

First 20 minutes of the UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg encounter, Real Madrid were almost at sea against Chelsea in the suburbs of Northern Madrid.

Thomas Tuchel sprang the early surprise on the basis of front-foot courage.

Liverpool tried to go with the flow and sank in their quarter-final tie against Madrid at the Spanish team's makeshift stadium. Chelsea's approach was to go against it.

With a double-pivot system of two forward-thinking defensive midfielders, in Kante and Jorginho, Chelsea asked their attackers to go full frontal.

The structural integrity of Real Madrid's fortification was compromised by Chelsea's flippancy of shock tactic.

Now, usually that doesn't happen. Usually, teams come to whatever iteration of the Santiago Bernabeu and if not cower, feel definitely a little bit unsure of themselves in front of the 13-time Champions of this competition. I mean, imagine sitting in the rival dressing room in the knock-out stage without having won one? Most teams mentally capitulate before they do on the field.

Chelsea learnt from the mistakes that Liverpool made in their quarter-final tie and shored their half-spaces up with seven defensively-sure human bodies as a rampant, mobile obstacle course.

Dead fishes and weak fishes go with the flow, the strong fishes climb upstream like Koi. Chelsea were the Koi up Madrid's stream as early as the 14th minute.

An awfully good long ball from Rudiger; trajectory like a volleyball lob founded its way to the cushioning feet of Christian Pulisic. He tore to the left a little before cutting in, sidestepping Thibaut Courtois€" who fell like how a wedding cake falls when one of the legs of the table gives way, because a fat uncle was leaning on it too heavily. Then Pulisic aimed and got a shot past a Real Madrid man on the goal line. Chelsea were one up.

For Madrid, their imperious midfield clockwork looked wonky. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric supremacy was in question again. The combo has been iffy in the league but seldom show their age in Europe, such a stranglehold of prestige Madrid holds psychologically.

It was at this point, a little after the 23rd minute mark, Karim Benzema, almost single handedly doused the Chelsea charge by firing a thunderous shot at the goalpost.

This effort woke Real Madrid from their collective sleepwalk. But not without their goal being threatened. The snooze on their alarm lasted until the 29th minute.

A Marcelo cross (inevitably) was sent to the far post for Casemiro to nod onto Karim Benzema. The ball was directed to fall at chest height and it did. Benzema spanked the volley home on the swivel. The net blew kissed back. 1-1.

Toni Kroos was leading the crescendo out of sleep. A 20-yard shot was curled wide. In the 30th minute mark, Ngolo Kante's influence and importance was growing.

The Chelsea defensive midfielder was the lead piston in their engine, both in defence and in attack. Especially in attack, when his close control gallop is an offensive battering ram operating between the hollows of a front foot Real Madrid attacking shape. Kante was back channelising the spirit of Michael Essien.

Kante occasionally burst through the middle, sucked the attention towards him and then very cordially passed the ball through to the wings.

In the second half as Madrid squeezed out the half-spaces centrally, Tuchel filed his team's shape to overload the wings.

By the 42nd minute the heavens finally opened up. Players were slipping, the ball was wobbly when passed, the lashing winds made the sudden chill worse.

Half time allowed the players some reprieve and for them the headspace to switch to a rainy night mentality.

From Zidane, the Real Madrid manger, the instructions would have been to his team to recycle the ball better.

For Chelsea it was all about making the most of a turnover of possession with a defence-first approach. Kante was threatening to go near the iceman with a blow torch, by his deep, penetrating runs. He's the kind of player Liverpool missed vs Madrid.

Elsewhere, Timo Werner looked like he was playing in a shell within a shell, and wasn't able to get over the disappointment of his early miss in the first half. He was playing like a man who knows that he has scored only thrice in over thirty games.

(The Roberto Firmino phenomenon is catching. Quite a number of second-strikers in Europe are suffering from a collective goal drought and consequently a crisis of confidence. Whether it's a sign of the further evolution of football or a weird moment in history, only time will tell.)

Whenever Kante slipped the ball to him, Werner opted to make the safer decisions instead of the optimistic one. What should have been an emphatic shot in the early minutes, across the goalkeeper, turned into a speculative prod at Courtois.

This is a shame, because players like Werner thrive on optimism and the sort of cleverness and daring that is derived from it. The daring in Werner has dissipated to dangerous levels. The grimace has replaced the grin.

Instead it was Pulisic who carried both The American and the Chelsea dream of a final appearance in Istanbul.

Tuchel was stoic in his post match assessment: "He missed a big one at West Ham and another one here. That doesn't help. But it also does not help to cry about it. There are millions of people who have harder things to deal with than missed chances. This is the good thing about sport. Nobody cares tomorrow.

"We were sad and angry at the time. He is angry and maybe disappointed. Tomorrow he has a free day. Then he has to put his chin up. He is in the positions. We will never stop pushing. If he scores in the next game nobody will speak about it."

In other words, Chelsea were regretting the chances they missed against Madrid. Tuchel confirmed:

"We could have maybe decided this match very early in the first half an hour. We were playing so, so strong. The second half was a bit of a tactical match and you could feel we only had two days in between two away games. Both games were very demanding."

This gives an insight Chelsea's 'let them have the ball just enough' approach in the second half. But that was not without Tuchel introducing Reece James over a more defensive Cesar Azpilicueta on the 67th minute. Real Madrid's Marcelo had an invisible target behind him, as Chelsea sensing his concentration lapses funelled their attack through that channel throughout.

Late on and crucially, Real Madrid's Militao was a militant defender in crucial one-on-one situations and strained every sinew to prove he's worth the space on the dressing room. Casemiro proved with multiple intercepts that there is still a need for old fashioned 'tackle first ask questions later' defensive midfielder; that their breed is not without merit. Especially when the clock is ticking down.

Real Madrid introduced former Chelsea sweetheart Eden Hazard on the 66th minute with little effect and the match petered to a wet close.

Chelsea even with the away goal advantage in the 1-1 score, is assuming nothing is won until it is. Tuchel was mindful to state:

"Now is the challenge to first of all enjoy a free day and then forget this result. Next week we have to face another challenge against Real Madrid. Nothing is sure, even if we had a win here. It is half-time and we need to fight for every centimetre."

And if there's any team in Europe who know what to do with a centimetre of advantage, it's Real Madrid.

The outcome of this fixture is beautifully poised.

Also See: Champions League: Chelsea advance to semi-finals for first time since 2014 despite loss to FC Porto

Champions League: Karim Benzema's volley earns Real Madrid 1-1 draw to leave semi-final tie against Chelsea in balance

Champions League: Jurgen Klopp rues Liverpool's wasteful finishing as Real Madrid reach semi-finals despite goalless draw

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