In a Champions League world where away goals still counted for more, we might not be having this discussion. Yet even after the cold shower that Chelsea were subjected to last Wednesday – and not just in terms of the torrential rain in west London – they are in a position to make Real Madrid work for a semi-final place that many felt (and feel) was already guaranteed.
It would be hard to argue that Chelsea’s resounding win at Southampton on Saturday represents firm evidence that The Blues are back to their best, particularly given the capacity of Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side to periodically implode. It did remind us, though, that what Chelsea need to resurrect their Champions League hopes is less a minor miracle and more a performance that is in them. We knew they needed to rediscover their best to be competitive. Now we have a hint that they can find themselves again.
Look carefully at the first leg at Stamford Bridge, though, and there were already signs of Thomas Tuchel’s team twitching into life. Clearly the mix-up between Edouard Mendy and Antonio Rudiger that presented Karim Benzema with his hat-trick goal scuppered the coach’s best-laid plans and hung a cloak of inevitability over the rest of the half, but Chelsea had their chances. Real Madrid defended hard for the second half but hardly faultlessly. They also needed some big moments from Thibaut Courtois to maintain the status quo.
Madrid could get physical but Blues will battle
Others will boil it down to the contrasting form of Benzema and struggling Romelu Lukaku who is not available for Chelsea on Tuesday. While having the Belgian striker at his best would have been a huge advantage for Tuchel, there is more to it than that – and the coach worked it out as he went along.
Mateo Kovacić, who should have started last Wednesday, made a difference when he came on, stopping his compatriot Luka Modrić (who El Real planned on replacing with Kovacić at one stage) from roaming as he pleased, as he had before the interval.
Carlo Ancelotti had his thinking cap on before the first leg, as evidenced by his use of Federico Valverde as a defensive wide forward, which worked a treat. The wily coach will do so again, and it was interesting to see him flank Casemiro with Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga in midfield in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Getafe, which was a masterclass in control. It would not be a shock to see Ancelotti add a bit of physicality to his team.
For that is how Chelsea will counter-attack in the Bernabéu. The holders will not go down without a fight and after that Southampton game – the Blues’ best performance in weeks – it feels as if they’re getting themselves back. Whether it can be quite enough to reach the last four, we’ll have to wait and see.
Liverpool in command but will be worked hard
From the way that Benfica fans at Estádio da Luz (predictably) barracked former Porto star Luis Diaz last week, it felt inevitable that he would make them pay for it – and he did, scoring potentially the decisive goal of the tie in its dying minutes. The thin lines were clear. Benfica had played a similar first leg to that of the previous round against Ajax (error-strewn first half, very good second) and only Diaz’s extra sprinkling of stardust cut off the chance of a similarly useful result.
Nélson Verissimo and his team won’t think this is over and will give it the lot, with little else left in their season. This is the last thing Jürgen Klopp would want on the back of Sunday’s epic with Manchester City (City could say the same but more so, of course, in between games with Atlético Madrid), but Benfica are built to battle as well as to attack, led by the awesome Darwin Nuñez. They have kept clean sheets at PSV, Ajax and Barcelona in this campaign so if the Lisbon giants go down, they will aim to do so with a fight.