Real Madrid are into the Champions League semi-finals. They produced a comeback against the comeback to progress 5-4 on aggregate and after extra time, with Karim Benzema once again the match-winner as he headed in a Vinícius cross in the extra period. It’s time, then, to analyse three pre-match questions that we had and to take a look at three more questions that have come up after this wild night of Champions League football.
1. Was this tie still alive?
Thomas Tuchel famously suggested that the tie was already over after the first leg, after Chelsea lost the first leg 3-1 at home. He said that straight after sitting down in the press conference at the end of that frustrating night, so whether that was mind games or not we’ll never really know. But, was he right? It was, after all, a huge advantage. But, we quickly saw that no, the tie wasn’t dead. It was very much alive. Chelsea ran all over Real Madrid and scored three goals plus a (correctly) disallowed one. Tuchel’s side were excellent. Yet, Real Madrid don’t fall out of the Champions League easily and they turned this resurrected tie back in their favour through Rodrygo and Karim Benzema.
2. How much would Chelsea change their setup?
Chelsea were so much better than they had been in the first leg. But, how? What changed? We expected Real Madrid would put out the same line-up, with only Nacho in for the suspended Éder Militão, but what would Chelsea do? Well, Tuchel changed a lot. For example, he moved Reece James from right-wing-back to right-centre-back, he introduced Timo Werner as an extra forward to support Kai Havertz and he got his team to press better and to keep the ball better – for which the players deserve credit since that’s easier said than done. Chelsea made life far more uncomfortable for Real Madrid and, even if they got a couple of lucky breaks on their way to building up their lead on the night, the visitors were clearly much better than they were six days ago.
3. Would Real Madrid miss… Jesús Vallejo?
We knew after the first leg that Éder Militão would be suspended for this one and that Nacho would substitute him. But, that left Real Madrid with just one backup centre-back and then that one backup got COVID-19. Jesús Vallejo has essentially been a spectator this season, but you did have to wonder ahead of this game if his COVID-19 absence might actually prove costly. With Nacho having to go off injured before extra time, suddenly this left Los Blancos with a problem. In the absence of Vallejo, Castilla’s Rafa Marín was the only natural centre-back left on the bench, but this wasn’t the time or place for him to make his senior debut. So, Ancelotti moved Carvajal to centre-back. That wasn’t ideal, but they managed to hold on.
1. Is this the night Karim Benzema won the 2022 Ballon d’Or?
Karim Benzema was already the favourite for the 2022 Ballon d’Or before tonight, but he took a big step towards it here. Not only because he scored another winning goal in the Champions League, one so similar to his first in this tie, but also because one of his main rivals for the Ballon d’Or was eliminated. Robert Lewandowski may have scored Bayern Munich’s only goal of their tie against Villarreal, but the striker was poor throughout the two legs and now he won’t have any more Champions League games this year, whereas Benzema will have at least two more. With the Ballon d’Or now evaluating the season instead of calendar year from 2022 onwards, that’s a huge blow for the Pole, given that the 2022 World Cup won’t even give him a chance to show what he can do. This, therefore, might prove to be a huge night for Benzema’s hopes of a first Ballon d’Or.
2. Does Kroos have any reason to be upset?
Toni Kroos was visibly angry when he was substituted off in the 73rd minute of the game, with Chelsea up 2-0. But, his replacement Eduardo Camavinga changed the game. So, can Kroos have any complaints? Ancelotti even suggested after the game that the German will continue to be the starter and that he likes having the French teenager as an option off the pitch, saying: “Camavinga could be a starter, but it’s clear that when he comes on he adds energy. Whenever matches drop in intensity, you can change the match with a fresh Camavinga.” So, Kroos will probably keep his starting spot for now. But, if in the future he’s hooked in the final 20 minutes and his replacement does a better job, he’ll have to keep his frustrations to himself.
3. City again or a Madrid derby?
So, looking ahead to the next round, who will Real Madrid get next and who do the fans want to face? Either way, it’ll be a familiar foe as they could face Manchester City, who eliminated Real Madrid in 2019/20, or Atlético Madrid, who Los Blancos met in four consecutive seasons between 2014 and 2017, winning that European derby each time. Either way, we know Real Madrid will have the second leg of the semi-final at the Bernabéu and, as we’ve seen so far this season, that may be more important than who the opposition is.