Thomas Tuchel’s team may not have the knowhow of their last four opponents but an ageing core can be gotten at
A penny for Thomas Tuchel’s thoughts as he watched (non-)events unfold at Anfield this evening, where Liverpool huffed and puffed in search of a route back into their Champions League quarter-final only to fall a few steps short.
Their wayward finishing means that Chelsea will face Real Madrid for the first time in a two-legged tie at the turn of the month with a place in the final on May 28 at stake. And the key takeaway is that Tuchel’s side should have nothing to fear against an ageing core that may possess incomparable experience but evidently lack that sprinkle of galactico magic.
Luka Modric, 35, remains compelling to watch but is showing signs of slowing down, so too Karim Benzema, 33, up front. The defence, currently minus Sergio Ramos, 35, has become more solid as the campaign has progressed but it is penetrable.
Toni Kroos at 31 seems a youthful cast member, irrespective of high hopes around Brazilian 20-year-old Rodrygo, and a comparison on paper might even make the West London club slight favourites across 180 minutes.
Real, suffice to say, do not look the rambunctious force of past seasons. Still, their history in this competition requires no elaboration. Regardless of their comparative lack of stardust, a perception of La Liga being weak and the ease with which Chelsea saw off their city rivals Atletico in the round of 16, only a fool would play down their chances of becoming European champions for a 14th time.
Not to mention that they will be an entirely different, far more daunting prospect for Chelsea than the feeble challenge put up by Porto in the last eight. Being worried or concerned though? No chance.
Similar could have been said about Liverpool’s challenge, of course, no matter their myriad injury problems and the widely-held but unproven narrative that they have been hurt more by empty stadiums compared to other clubs.
There is also genuine novelty about this tie. Despite Chelsea averaging a European semi-final every second year in the Roman Abramovich era and Real’s long-standing dominance, the clubs have only met on two occasions and the Blues have prevailed in both.
First there was the 1971 Cup Winners’ Cup final, decided in a replay two days after the initial meeting ended 1-1. Then there was the 1998 Super Cup in which Gus Poyet scored late against a Real side managed by Gianluca Vialli. Now, first meetings in Madrid and London await.
At the same time there is no shortage of narrative, even discounting the near-perpetually injured Eden Hazard. Perhaps most notable is how a feeling persists, despite Edouard Mendy being more than competent, that goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois has proven a far greater loss in recent years than his attacking compatriot.
Courtois made an impact inside two minutes this evening, extending a leg to deny Mohamed Salah as Liverpool began ferociously, and he followed up with a good stop to keep out a whipped James Milner attempt from outside the area.
Liverpool were much better here, begging the question why they were so passive eight days previous when Kroos was offered all the freedom he desired. Jurgen Klopp’s side produced 15 attempts in total, placing just four on target. Only profligate finishing and, to a lesser extent, Courtois’ work maintained Real’s two-goal cushion.
But, much like Chelsea 24 hours previous, Real did enough to progress without necessarily impressing.
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