Reece James knows he and his team-mates will have to be on top form to compete with Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-finals, though he insists the brave Blues have nothing to fear as they bid to reach the Istanbul final.
The Spaniards held on to their 3-1 first leg advantage at Anfield to dump out Liverpool on Wednesday night and set up a meeting with Chelsea for the first time since the 1998 Super Cup.
It will be our first-ever visit to Real as all three of our previous contests have come in showpiece finals on neutral territory, most notably the 1971 European Cup Winners’ Cup final and subsequent replay.
James was just over a year old for that Super Cup clash and will be hoping to write his own history when the long-awaited, much-anticipated semi-final first leg takes place in the Spanish capital in just under a fortnight’s time.
‘You can’t go into games with any fear,’ said the young defender. ‘You can acknowledge a good team but you can’t go in worrying.
‘We’re a very good team as well. We have many strengths, we play to our strengths and I think that’s shown over recent weeks. I just hope we can continue our good form and keep improving as a team.’
Although James admits he and some of the other younger players in the dressing room are learning all the time as they advance deep into the Champions League knockout round for the first time, the 21-year-old feels the team as a whole are more than streetwise enough to handle the unique challenges of European football, as evidenced in victories over Atletico Madrid and Porto.
‘As we’ve progressed in the tournament, obviously the games have got harder and it’s higher stakes,’ he continued. ‘I’ve never been in this position before, like a lot of the other young lads, and we’re learning a lot on the way.
‘It’s part of playing in Europe and in the Champions League. When you play against foreign teams, they know what to do to get through games so you sometimes have to give some back to them as well.’
James also acknowledges the omens building up in Chelsea’s favour and similarities to our 2012 triumph – a new manager in the dugout, Portuguese opponents beaten in the quarter-finals and now Spanish heavyweights standing in between us and a place in the final.
Hard work, togetherness and belief were the attributes that took Roberto Di Matteo’s side to that unlikeliest of achievements, along with a slice of luck here and there, and James believes the crop of 2021 are displaying the same characteristics now.
‘The season started off a bit strange,’ he added. ‘If you’d said we would have been here at the start of the season then we probably wouldn’t have believed you but it just shows what’s possible with hard work, everyone getting their heads down and working as a team.
‘When you come to the later stages of competitions, you know you’re going to come up against top-class teams. We need to be ready and at our best right from the start.’