Do they be proactive, or do they protect, especially amid the threat of an away goal? Thomas Tuchel is clear about how Chelsea will play. Some of the longer-serving Chelsea players and staff have already noticed something different about this Champions League semi-final.
For most of the club’s history in the competition, after all, the trophy was a holy grail. There was this elusive allure to it, that so many great clubs have experienced. You could sense it around every game.
Their 2012 Champions League victory naturally brought deliverance but, given it’s been a long seven years since their last semi-final – let alone their last final – it is conspicuous that there is none of that this time. There is actually something of a serenity, and just a readiness.
Part of it is of course the atmosphere around games, and the absence of fans. Part of it is that this young team almost feels ahead of schedule. If the club long felt they were “due” a win by 2012, this would almost be seen as a bonus. Chelsea are still only building.
And part of it is the manager. Thomas Tuchel does currently radiate that sense of assurance come what may. On the eve of this second leg with Real Madrid, he even spoke about the potential negatives of building such games up too much. “If you make things too big, it doesn’t help,” Tuchel said. “It devalues your performance.”
The message isn’t quite to take every game as it comes, but it is to take charge. With their away goal from the 1-1 first-leg draw, Chelsea have the advantage – but that also means they have a balance to strike. Do they be proactive, or do they protect, especially amid the threat of an away goal?
There is a fairly stark reality that would seem to condition the entire match. If Chelsea keep a clean sheet, they’re through. They have also managed to do precisely that in 17 of Tuchel’s 23 games so far. More important than the stat, though, is the manner they go about it.
It is a particular risk of the modern game, and how attacking it is, that you’re probably never more likely to fail to secure a clean sheet if you specifically play defensively to get one. It invites pressure, and creates a degree of inevitability about the opposition side’s attacking. When was the last time we even saw a successful mass rearguard in these latter knockout stages? It was arguably Atletico Madrid away to Bayern Munich in 2015-16, and even they conceded in that match. The modern game is too loaded towards attacking. Tuchel is at the forefront of that.
It is why he is clear about how Chelsea will play. “I don’t know any other way to prepare a match than to encourage my team to go out and try to win it and be your best,” Tuchel said on the eve of the game. “If we are at our best then it is a no-brainer that we go for a win, we want to win games. This club is about winning, this game is about winning, this competition is about winning.
“We will encourage our players, demand from them and we will be strong there tomorrow at 8pm as one group, as one club and a big goal to overcome Real Madrid. This will only happen if we bring our best level to the pitch and the best level means to fight to win.
“In the end in a semi-final in the Champions League, it’s not about the formation. It’s not about how Real Madrid play. It’s about how we play, what intensity we have, what belief we have. Are we brave enough? Do we play courageously enough, and do we play at our top level within the formation?”
A potential issue for this specific game is that Tuchel’s side could well completely dominate it, but Madrid have one very rare player who can change everything in an instant. It is of course someone who Chelsea know all too well. They’ve enjoyed the benefits so often. Eden Hazard.
Zinedine Zidane confirmed that the Belgian is set to play, and to perform. “Eden is here, he is ready and prepared. [Wednesday] he will bring his game and show what he wants out of it.”
He certainly wants to make an impact. It’s fair to say that, for a lot of reasons that aren’t really his fault, Hazard has been a disappointment for Madrid. He hasn’t done much at all. It’d be quite a moment to finally produce, in the competition that his club cares more about than any other – at least below Florentino Perez. Whatever about the fate of the Super League, the Champions League is one reason Hazard wanted to go to Madrid.
He never won it at Chelsea, having joined just after they finally claimed it in 2012. That’s how long it’s been. That’s how different it feels.