Columnist

Pat Nevin: Why midfield may be decisive against Madrid

With Chelsea Women already in their Champions League final and the men’s team aiming to make theirs by overcoming Real Madrid on Wednesday, there is plenty for Blues legend Pat Nevin to appreciate and look forward to in his column this week…


For all the games this season that have been played behind closed doors at Stamford Bridge, this could well be the most painful one to watch with no fans in the ground. Having come this far in the Champions League with the mighty Real Madrid finally arriving in SW6, there have been few occasions in living memory when the team would have been keener to have the roar of our fans in a stadium, packed to the rafters, spurring them on.

There will be no lack of passion from everyone watching on screens or listening on radios and other devices all over the world. Added to the poignancy of the night, there is the chance of a historical double. If we have our women’s and men’s teams in their respective Champions League finals, it would be as big a statement as this club has ever made about where it is and where it wants to be.

Trying to think of tomorrow as just another game, or this week as just another week in the life of the club, simply doesn’t work. It is huge. Emma Hayes and the team have been incredible this season and they look like a team who are only going to improve as time goes on. A nice little league title wouldn’t go amiss there too, and it would be totally deserved.

So it is another prestige match on Wednesday evening, but will it be a great game? There is every chance it will be as Real Madrid have to attack as they need a goal and of course the longer it stays at 0-0, the more the pressure will build, but it will build on both teams. The last few weeks have been quite incredible in football, with the protests at Old Trafford just the latest event that nearly broke the internet. It was helpful then that our last game against Fulham was a fairly low-key, routine home victory. It wasn’t exactly a stroll in the park, but it was as comfortable as a Premier League game can be against a side fighting against relegation.


Clues ahead of the match

Real mirrored our result with their 2-0 win against Osasuna, but both managers had more than one eye on this game throughout. Right now, I can’t wait to see how the teams shape up, but the midfield battle in particular will be riveting.

We rested N’Golo Kante and Jorginho while Toni Kroos and Luka Modric had their feet up at the weekend instead of playing any of the 90 minutes in Madrid. It underlines just how much importance both managers place on that midfield tussle.

'I intend to be calm, knowing that this is a step or two beyond my expectations already.'

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

Chelsea had the best of that area in the 1-1 draw last week, but that will only serve to drive Casemiro and co. this time. You don’t get a sniff at a midfield berth in this tie unless you are a truly world-class player, so Mason Mount will fit in nicely as usual.

Creativity is also going to play a huge role in this one too. Every Chelsea fan will have spotted that Eden Hazard started Madrid’s last outing, as well as having a cameo appearance in the first leg. We know better than anyone else exactly what he can do, even if he isn’t necessarily 100 per cent fit yet. Karim Benzema we discovered, well we knew anyway, is a quality goal scorer, so anyone who can provide even a half-chance for him has to be a danger.

For all that they have superb quality, the first half last week showed that Zinedene Zidane was even more concerned with the opposition than Thomas Tuchel was. I will be surprised if Zizou decides to try the three central defenders again this time, after the way his defence performed in that first half. They almost always play with a back-four and as such, they will be more like their old selves if they start with that defensive line.

Young legs

Chelsea on the other hand have to consider who starts up front and it is not an easy choice. Timo Werner scared the living daylights out of Real’s defence with his pace but then Kai Havertz had another one of his ridiculously elegant displays against Fulham when he coasted beyond players, and even their entire defence, with something that looked uncannily like effortless ease. Tough call.

For all the incredible history and experience that Real have in Hazard and Benzema, the youth of Mount, Pulisic, Havertz and Werner is just as likely to be as advantageous at the end of a long, hard slog of a season.

I will be brutally honest and admit that I felt this would be a season or more too early for this young Chelsea team to be serious contenders at this level, but the facts tell a different story.

The first leg of this tie was enough to underline that this is not an impossible task on Wednesday. If Manchester City do reach the final, we would have a great chance there as well. City will win the Premier League and can claim to be the best team in England, but in the most recent knockout game, the FA Cup semi-final, we all remember a 1-0 win that was anything but a lucky victory for us.

Whatever happens tomorrow night it is a historical game, one that underlines that this season, though filled as ever with a bunch of peaks and troughs, can still be seen as a step forward in terms of what has been delivered on the pitch.

Everyone has a different way of dealing with these occasions, everyone is affected differently whether you are a fan, a player or indeed an ex-player or even the boss.

I know many Chelsea fans will be nervous and I even know a few who will be close to gibbering wrecks by the time the game starts. I intend to be calm, knowing that this is a step or two beyond my expectations already. I want to enjoy and savour this game for all it has to offer, the quality on the field and what it promises if we win.

The problem is, like everyone else, that state of calm might become impossible to keep in check after about five minutes.

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