Chelsea vs Real Madrid: 5 possible deciding factors

By: Mohammed Sahel

Stamford Bridge hosts one of the most awaited games of football across Europe today. The atmosphere in London will be buzzing when Real Madrid walk out for revenge. Emotions notwithstanding, there are multiple ways in which either team can take advantage of the other’s fallacies here. 

Wouldn’t hurt to take a look at what can and cannot make a difference tonight. Read along!

1) Who wins the midfield battle?

For the visitors, patience is growing thin on the old guard. Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić are phenomenal footballers and masterful technicians. Essentially, they can play around Chelsea in a 5 a-side and not have to chase the ball once. 

This however, is a game of football highly physical and brutally demanding to the core. Like demonstrated in last year’s tie, Chelsea’s midfielders are direct, pacey and can run through the Madrid Wall with ease. 

Federico Valverde’s reintroduction may change things, but he doesn’t quite influence the game the same way as a wide midfielder/full-back. Chelsea’s problems are more straightforward. For Tuchel, it’s a two man midfield vs a three man block. 

Playing Kante alongside Kovacic would mean Jorginho goes to the bench. But that brings infinitely more possibilities with Mason Mount allowed to roam freely ahead of the two deeper midfielders, linking with the likes of Havertz and Pulisic. 

With Jorginho, Tuchel’s side will exercise considerably more control over the ball. Maybe being rough and tough isn’t the best idea in the first leg at home for the Blues. Setting up with Jorginho deeper than his two colleagues should be the way to go about things, as was the case against LOSC Lille.

2) Are Chelsea’s full-back’s as much of a threat?

The defending champions of Europe have their fair share of tricks up their sleeve. They can be an intense pressing side, or a defensive wall (as was the case last season), or an elite counter-attacking team. 

What doesn’t change throughout however, is Thomas Tuchel’s use of two aggressive full-back’s either side of his midfield. To dominate the flanks would mean sending Ancelotti’s defence further back and narrow (their usual reaction to teams who pin back their full-backs). 

This gives Chelsea a massive advantage. Although, without Ben Chilwell’s threat down the left things aren’t quite the same. Marcos Alonso makes some precise runs and has an excellent release ball up his sleeve but he doesn’t quite have the same impact as the injured Chilwell. 

On the right, Reece James has the freedom and the ability to roam free and create overloads (probably with Mount/Ziyech if either start).

3) Real’s right wing conundrum

For sometime now, Los Blancos have had a cavity through their team. While on one hand Carlo Ancelotti is able to field a consistent starting eleven with his midfielders, centre back’s and the duo of Karim Benzema and Vinícius Júnior, the right flank seems to have gradually picked up a rotational policy as the season’s progressed. 

Dani Carvajal has his fitness issues and his natural replacement Lucas Vázquez isn’t really much of a natural replacement. Fede Valverde comes into the equation because neither Asensio nor Rodrygo are competent enough to cement the spot for a considerable period of time. 

Gareth Bale meanwhile, let’s just not talk about Gareth Bale (his involvement is out of the question). As you may already have seen coming, the combination of Marcos Alonso’s pace and Christian Pulisic’s technical ability could cause harm on that side of the Spanish team’s defence. 

As for the wingers, Asensio has his moments and can change games with his goals but Rodrygo has the upper hand when it comes to commitment, desire and proper wing-play. Regardless, the popular opinion amongst Madridistas seems to be that Valverde brings the most balance and its hard to argue with that. 

At right-back, Carvajal is the go-to choice but Lucas started at the weekend and has been playing more minutes as of late. Although none of them covered themselves in any glory against PSG last month. Some tough calls for Ancelotti to make.

4) Switch of shape hurts both teams

Chelsea’s loss at the weekend wasn’t exactly the way Chelsea had been playing recently (having won six in a row prior to that). Brentford smashed a weakened but complacent team 4-1 at the Bridge and it highlighted the need for Thomas Tuchel to stick to the 3/5 man defence. 

Having not played this way since the days of Antonio Conte, even some of the more experienced players at the club took time to fit into the system Tuchel introduced when he arrived. With time, the 3-4-3 has become synonymous with the way Chelsea play. 

Their compactness in structure, fluidity in build up play and defensive cover down the centre all comes thanks to their ability to master the shape. The down sides of a back four are too many to name for Chelsea.

Real Madrid too suffered a similar, quite disastrous fate when they were decimated at the Bernabéu last month, courtesy of Xavi’s Barça. Karim Benzema’s injury forced Ancelotti to switch formation, and to introduce strategies that’d probably never been tried and tested before on the training pitch. 

Or so it seemed from the way they performed. With Kroos and Modrić pressing, Casemiro almost as a third centre back, both wingers pinned back in their defensive positions at all time, it was a total mess. By the time Real could regain any sense of what they were doing, Barcelona had put four past them and Ancelotti had played around with his system a few more times.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t just that both Chelsea and Madrid are comfortable playing one way in one shape (which should be the case really for any team). Rather simply that change can overwhelm a team when they play a certain way for so long. For that reason, I expect both Tuchel and Ancelotti to make pragmatic decisions tonight, in line with what’s happened in their recent ‘experimental’ games.

5) Records of the past, effects on the present

Record’s never seem to directly impact games like this one. Or any games on the professional stage for that matter. But having a mental advantage, or past insight into how your opponents set up is very important. 

Crucially enough for these teams, their last date with destiny wasn’t very long ago. The player’s have been through this before, home and away. Tuchel’s plans have worked before, albeit with a considerably stronger team and against a worse Madrid side. Ancelotti has history with Chelsea too, but that’ll hardly be of any relevance. 

Tuchel has never lost a game against the Merengues for any team he’s coached in the past, having won twice and drawn on four other occasions.

Another shocking statistic which may come as a surprise to Madrid fans — Chelsea have never been beaten by Real Madrid in an official game (non-friendlies that is). The game is not all about numbers and records of the past. 

They however, play a role in developing or clouding one’s judgement against the other team. A wide range of ideas, physical qualities and mind games on show. Only those who’ve been there and done that before can boast to Expect what is to come. Experience counts for a lot more than what one might think.

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