In the end, the clubs’ colour schemes told the tale. Chelsea blue shirts, blue-collar work ethic. Real Madrid, by a distance the most famous white strip in the history of football, white-collar “bosses,” who like things to happen the way they want to happen — not necessarily the way that the actual workers see it.
The only trouble, as whenever blue-collar workers of the world have united in ferocity and passion, is once you’ve got the executives, the ruling class, on the run, once you’ve got them divided, doubting themselves and flustered at the ancien regime being disturbed you must irrevocably seize power — or usually regret it.
And blue-collar Chelsea should, frankly, already be one and half strides into the Istanbul final.
Before anyone who supports Thomas Tuchel’s club splutters and exclaims in indignation that I’ve categorised them as the sleeves-rolled-up, hard-working team in this first part of the Champions League semifinal, should know it comes with not one shred of disrespect.
Not for the first time the aggressive, often mercurial German, who could do a passible Niles Crane of Frasier fame impersonation, understood precisely what Real Madrid hate, what will get right under their skin and his record against Los Blancos (specifically Zinedine Zidane’s teams) is notable.
This is the first time Tuchel has schemed against a Zidane XI in a knockout tie. But the previous four matches, two in charge of Borussia Dortmund and two as head coach of Paris Saint-Germain, had direct similarities to this, his fifth match without defeat against the emperors of Europe.
What stood out was the fact that Chelsea were crystal clear about their game plan, they were crystal clear about what damage it would do to Real Madrid and they had total confidence that they could bully the exceptional, but ageing, Spanish champions.
Some examples were the way in which, across the contest, Mason Mount, N’Golo Kante, goal-scorer Christian Pulisic and Chelsea’s various wing-backs squeezed the daylights out of increasingly indignant, exasperated and, ultimately, passive world greats like Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro.
Because Zidane opted for a 3-5-2 formation, the strategies, on paper, were like for like. But that doesn’t always mean that the teams will play man-for-man. Chelsea, however, did. In fact it’s always the litmus test for a special performance, especially against a nominally “greater” rival that you seem to have more players on the pitch than them.
It’s an optical illusion, I’m pretty sure, but there were long spells, particularly in the first half, when Tuchel seemed to have 14 or 15 guys on the sodden Valdebebas playing surface in Madrid. And it might explain how utterly shocking Madrid were, initially, if it transpires that they were wasting time trying to count Chelsea’s players instead of marking them and instead of passing past them instead of directly to them.
The beneficiary was United States men’s superstar Pulisic. He’d done enough of the harrying, scurrying and pressing to earn a reward, but the way that he invented the first goal was simply gorgeous.
If you’ve been watching Real Madrid’s European progress this season, you’ll see the bitter irony in how they conceded.
Back in the quarterfinals when Liverpool came visiting and it was champion vs. champion, Jurgen Klopp’s team was exhausted, slow to press and Kroos quarter-backed Madrid to victory. Liverpool simply couldn’t press him properly and his pass-making was the determining factor.
In this game, it was a mirror image. Casemiro, of all people, who utterly loves snarling and breathing fire in the face of his opponents, just watched passively as Antonio Rudiger looked up and assessed his ability to make a 40-metre pass without it being of the Hail Mary variety.
The Germany defender backed himself, and quite rightly.
Pulisic was making a lovely “bent” run, which means he starts deeper than a traditional striker who risks the offside line by playing on the shoulder of his defender.
Via the shaped trajectory of his run the Hershey, Pennsylvania born boy arrived right into the path of Rudiger’s perfect pass — and onside.
This is when a lovely series of events directly affected the fact that Chelsea took a deserved lead and scored an away goal which may yet win them a place in the final.
Pulisic’s control, honed on the Dortmund Brackel Training Ground, didn’t fail him. The defensive instincts of Nacho and Eder Militao did, however.
The 22-year-old American faced up to the two of them plus Thibaut Courtois, who’d already broken a Chelsea heart or two (more later) and the daft decisions Madrid’s two defenders made will live with them a long time — particularly if they fail in London.
Both the Spaniard and the Brazilian decided to run away from Pulisic and occupy space on the goal line. This left Courtois, all 6-foot-4 of him, trying to jockey with the young American, a joust that Pulisic was going to win all night.
When Chelsea’s No. 10 did his soft-shoe shuffle away from Courtois he was left shooting fish in a barrel, smashed his effort between the two statuesque defenders on the line and his goal was reward for technique, timing, brains and lovely self confidence.
The harsh fact was, and this relates back to the idea of the workers letting the executives off the hook, that this should have been Chelsea’s 2-0 goal.
Just a little earlier, Mount had skipped and frolicked past Militao in midfield as if he wasn’t actually there and the result was that Pulisic, again free between Marcelo and Nacho, made a superb choice and cushioned a literally perfect header back into the path of Timo Werner.
This isn’t a memo to Tuchel, but I’d put forward the idea that, judging by tonight, it may be worth paying Pulisic and Oliver Giroud and Tammy Abraham some extra daily bonus money to stay behind after training to teach the German to finish.
The opportunity from Werner was saved exceptionally by Courtois at point-blank range, but while Chelsea still defiantly look favourites to reach the final this was the kind of miss that you rue for a week and then leaves you self flagellating forever if the second leg eliminates your team. Just horrible.
The ultra hard-working Cesar Azpilicueta admitted post match: “We could have scored more goals. We started with courage, we knew we had to perform at our best level, the semifinal of the Champions League demands that.
Ale Moreno feels Real Madrid were second best in all aspects vs. Chelsea, and were lucky to escape with a draw.
“We pressed well, recovered the ball well, but that last pass or finish we lacked. Otherwise, this could have been a different result.”
The tarnished nature of Madrid’s performance, huffing and puffing and utterly detesting the fact that, unlike domestically, they didn’t have a moment to breath or think, made their equaliser shimmer and shine like a regal diamond.
Chelsea, when Real Madrid won their corner just before the half hour, dozed off for nine or 10 seconds. That, in itself, is a huge warning for next week. Do not, repeat after me a thousand times, give a technically superior and vastly experienced rival you think is on the canvas, any respite whatsoever.
They did though. Despite ensuring that they were touch-tight in the six-yard area, Chelsea failed to notice that Kroos and Modric were working on a short corner routine or that Marcelo had joined them.
Kante sprinted across too late but, by then, the change of angle of attack was nice for Marcelo’s sweet left foot to pinpoint Casemiro at the back post. His nod across goal was helped on by Militao, making part amends for his part in Pulisic’s opener, and then crash, bang, wallop it was Benzema-time.
Only the true greats score this goal. Chest control, so that the ball’s trajectory was where he could hook a boot at it, quicker to think, quicker to react, quicker to slash it home amid a cluster of bodies that included Andreas Christensen and Thiago Silva.
Edouard Mendy looked more shocked than dejected that his countryman had inflicted something quite so outrageous on him during the Chelsea keeper’s inaugural Champions League semifinal.
Then, slowly, Madrid began to play with more energy, denying Chelsea so much time on the ball, Tuchel’s team began to look like they were happy with what they’d got and, bar the odd moment, none of which superseded Benzema’s stunning long-range shot off Mendy’s right hand post, the teams started mental and physical preparation for next Wednesday in south west London.
Tuchel conceded: “We were a bit tired second half with only two days in between two away games. We had a big chance to keep the intensity up and hurt Madrid in the second half as well.”
The blue-shirted, blue-collar, sleeves rolled up attitude won some significant concessions from the long-established European giants, but they were only scraps off the top table, not the whole banquet.
Chelsea start the second leg as slight favourites, but anyone who thinks it simply doesn’t matter that they let Madrid off the hook hasn’t been paying attention properly.
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