Five key battles that Chelsea must win to have a chance against Real Madrid

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Chelsea face an uphill battle in the Bernabeu tonight - but could there still be some hope of a stunning victory?

Frank Lampard faces one hell of an uphill battle tonight. The Chelsea caretaker manager leads his charges into the fray against a Real Madrid team who have made the Champions League their own, winning five of the last nine editions of Europe’s premier club competition. They have quality across the pitch, a manager who has already won the trophy four times, and Chelsea are, with the best will in the world, not having a great season.

But Chelsea do have a chance, even if it’s more of a faint hint of a whispered prayer than anything else. We’ve picked out five key battles that Lampard’s men must win if they want to pull off a colossal upset and stay on track for an unlikely trophy in a dreadful season. Get these right, and maybe, just maybe…

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Chelsea’s forwards v Real’s centre-halves

If Lampard has been studying the tape of Real’s 3-2 defeat to Villarreal at the weekend, he’ll have noticed that Real’s formidable centre-halves do have weaknesses. They won’t be beaten in the air easily – not that Chelsea are likely to fling too many high balls in to their non-existent strikers – and their positional discipline means that they don’t give up many chances in the box, but there are gaps left between the centre-backs and the holding midfielder to exploit, which Samuel Chukwueze did to devastating effect on Saturday, twice finding gaps in front of David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger and using those half-yards to lash home and take three points away from the Bernabeu.

This, then, is a time when Kai Havertz might be well-suited to the task at hand, and when players like Joao Felix and Mason Mount, adept at identifying half-spaces, can shine. Trying to break down Real’s back line with through balls past the last man is unlikely to be fruitful, but if they can either use Havertz as a false nine or ask the German to occupy the central defence and create room for onrushing inside forwards or attacking midfielders, Chelsea might be able to create the same half-chances that Villarreal did. The problem, of course, is that none of Chelsea’s players are exhibiting the confidence or form in front of goal that Chukwueze did…

Kai Havertz finding form will be key if Chelsea are to have a chance in the BernabeuKai Havertz finding form will be key if Chelsea are to have a chance in the Bernabeu
Kai Havertz finding form will be key if Chelsea are to have a chance in the Bernabeu | AFP via Getty Images

The wide-men v Real’s left-back

While Real Madrid are certainly a better team than Chelsea at this moment in time, there’s also no doubt that this is not the utterly dominant Real team of some recent seasons. They do have weaknesses, they are well behind Barcelona in the title race, and they do have a glaring problem at full-back.

With Ferland Mendy injured, Real have either utilised Eduardo Camavinga or Nacho out of position on the left-hand side, and Nacho in particular has shown he can be gotten at, with only a 37.5% tackle completion rate this campaign. Camavinga, who is more likely to start given that he was rested at the weekend, has a 34.8% completion rate and has been dribbled past nearly twice per game on average. A fine player and a fierce competitor, but also something of a fish out of water in his current position.

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So how can Chelsea exploit that problem? Given that the other issue Real have is those gaps between the lines, that suggests that a move to 3-4-3 with wing-backs pushing up is the way to go from an attacking standpoint. There will be chances for Reece James – or, perhaps, a more attacking-minded player asked to glue himself to the wing – to make hay down the right flank, and that’s by far the most glaring hole in Real’s defence. The key, of course, will be taking advantage of that flaw without leaving themselves vulnerable at the back.

Reece James v Vinicius Junior

However Chelsea line-up, and whether James is part of a narrower defensive set-up or playing in his usual full-back role in a back four, Reece James is likely to have one of the biggest responsibilities of the evening – handling the marauding Vinicius Junior. One of the best players in the world at 22 years old, Vinicius will be a colossal headache for Chelsea alongside Karim Benzema, and if James pushes on they will have to work out how to cover what could be a yawning hole for the Brazilian to run into.

James is, of course, himself one of the best players in his position anywhere, and has the skillset and pace to deal with Vinicius – but given that he could be a huge attacking weapon for Chelsea down the right, Lampard faces a tricky balancing act. Too aggressive and Vinicius could be given the freedom of Chelsea’s right-hand side, a surefire way to ship goals, and if Lampard does stick to a back four, he would risk leaving his centre-halves two on two with Vinicius and Benzema – a losing proposition. That’s another reason that a back three might be the answer, but whether Lampard identifies that or agrees remains to be seen.

Vinicius Junior celebrates his goal against Villarreal on SaturdayVinicius Junior celebrates his goal against Villarreal on Saturday
Vinicius Junior celebrates his goal against Villarreal on Saturday | Getty Images

Kante & Fernandez v Modric & Kroos

Both Luke Modric and Toni Kroos were rested for the defeat against Villarreal, strongly hinting that they will be unleashed in the Champions League tonight. Vastly experienced and with breathtaking passing ranges, if Chelsea can’t get a handle on them, they have a massive issue.

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Fortunately for Chelsea, the central midfield battle is far from a lost cause. Enzo Fernandez may have a tough time living up to his exorbitant price tag but he’s both a superb player of the ball from deep and boasts the defensive nous to win the ball in dangerous areas – he averages 2.66 tackles per game, although his success rate of 36.6% for Chelsea is unspectacular, even if it partly reflects an especially vast volume of attempts. Alongside him, N’Golo Kante is expected to be fit enough to start and if his motor is running, he has all the ability and experience to get at Modric and Kroos in a way very few ball-winning midfielders could dream of. This will be one of the biggest battles over the two legs, and if Chelsea can win it they will massively restrict Real’s ability to get the ball forward to their deadly front line.

Chelsea’s forwards v themselves

Of course, even if Chelsea do get the best of it in the middle of the park, even if Lampard does balance the tactical necessities of the tie, and even if they do find all those little gaps between the Real lines, they will need to score some goals to win this tie. Therein lies the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The playwright, not the Leicester City coach.

Kai Havertz has not looked like a man liable to rifle the ball into the corners of the net when presented with half-chances in recent months, and Raheem Sterling has been somewhat off the boil. Mykhaylo Mudryk has looked entirely unthreatening in front of goal in the early stages of his Chelsea career. This is a team in dire need of a forward to step up and start rattling them in with regularity.

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Joao Felix, then, is perhaps the most important man on the park for Chelsea. A man who has the dribbling and acceleration to poke open the half-spaces Real offer, and a pretty huge point to prove – because during his time at Atletico, the Portuguese failed to register a single goal or assist against their Madrid rivals. Often accused of disappearing in the big games, there would be no better time for Felix to shrug off the weight of history and the damning verdicts of the doubters, and in terms of attributes, he offers exactly what Chelsea need to pry Real open. He just needs to find his shooting boots, although with two goals in his 10 Chelsea appearances, his performances in front of goal haven’t been much more wayward than anyone else.

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Of course, it’s all ifs for Chelsea. Real Madrid are a better team, on better form, playing in a competition they practically own. Even if Lampard gets everything right, even if they win all the key battles, they will still be second favourites. But this is football, and miracles do happen

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