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Thursday, April 14, 2022

Thomas Tuchel ends £311m debate as Chelsea trophy-winning formula is rediscovered vs Real Madrid

  Fifteen minutes remained at the Bernabeu when Mateo Kovacic slipped the ball through the Real Madrid defence for Timo Werner. Chelsea h...


Fifteen minutes remained at the Bernabeu when Mateo Kovacic slipped the ball through the Real Madrid defence for Timo Werner. Chelsea had hauled themselves level in their Champions League quarter-final tie. Now it was time for the German forward to give them the most unexpected of leads in the Spanish capital.

Werner shaped to play a pass into the six-yard box but instead cut back onto his right foot and took Casemiro out of the game. He then eased beyond David Alaba and managed to force a shot beyond Thibaut Courtois. The ball trickled towards the far corner, and there was nothing the Los Blancos defenders could to do stop it. Chelsea finally had the lead in the tie.

Unfortunately, it didn't last. Four minutes later, Luka Modric produced the assist of the Champions League season to date, and Rodrygo thumped a volley home at the back post. That forced the game into extra time, in which Karim Benzema headed home to break Chelsea's hearts and leave Thomas Tuchel's side, despite their heroics, beaten.

"We had everything that we needed at 3-0 up, we had the chance to go through," Werner told Chelsea's in-house media after the second leg at the Bernabeu, which Chelsea did win.

"We tried everything in normal time and in extra time, but the home game [first leg] made a difference because this was nearly a perfect performance from us. So we are very disappointed after what we put into this game and how we played.

"When I celebrated [my goal] I thought this is it. We could have scored before that to make it 3-0, but the officials didn't give it to us, it is a point you can talk about.

 But when I scored, I thought we are through with this. We nearly gave no chances to Madrid, but in the end, we have to say the goals they scored were very good. We had a brilliant game, and we had 10 minutes to go through to make a miracle come true, so it is very disappointing."

Werner was something of a wildcard selection at the Bernabeu. This season hasn't been easy for the 26-year-old. He has struggled for form and had to overcome a hamstring injury and Covid earlier in the campaign. It's why the German international – signed from RB Leipzig in the summer of 2020 for £49.5million – has made only 18 starts in all competitions.

The wealth of attacking options available to Tuchel has also played its part that limited game time. The Chelsea head coach added Romelu Lukaku last summer to a squad that already contained Werner, Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi. It was never going to be simple for any of the attackers, five of whom were signed for a combined £311million, to become undroppable.

In recent weeks, however, Havertz has done so. Meanwhile, Mount's energy and quality have always made him a favourite of Tuchel – and any head coach that has been able to select the England international. It's often been a case of who is deployed alongside that duo in the front three.

Pulisic has been given his chance. Ziyech too. Lukaku hasn't but given his form in February, that is no surprise. And Hudson-Odoi has been struggling with a persistent Achilles injury. It was at the weekend against Southampton that Werner was given an opportunity, and he responded by scoring twice and grabbing an assist. He also hit the woodwork on three occasions.

Last term, the attacking trio of Mount, Havertz and Werner was Tuchel's go-to. They started the Champions League semi-final second leg against Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge, which Chelsea won 2-0. And then were deployed in the final against Manchester City in Porto. Werner missed big chances in that game, but the Blues did claim a 1-0 win and lifted the big-eared trophy for only the second time.

Yet this season, perhaps surprisingly, that same front three has only been used on four occasions across all competitions.

 In fact, the trio have only started in the same team six times – Mount dropped into midfield for Premier League games at home to Newcastle United and Brentford. When the Mount, Havertz and Werner combination has been deployed, Chelsea have scored 15 goals in four games.

The weekend win over Southampton skews that somewhat but it's a sign that the Blues tend to find attacking fluency and unpredictability when they're selected. Perhaps that is because they complement each other well:

 Werner is a hard-running and direct forward; Havertz a smart mover, elegant on-the- ball presence, and aerial threat; Mount is all- action, a player ready to break forward to threaten goal or drop in when needed to overload midfield.

That was all evident at the Bernabeu. And while the defeat was painful given the brilliance with which Chelsea played, there was huge pride taken in the performance. That must be carried into the weekend's FA Cup semi-final against Crystal Palace at Wembley, a game the Blues are favourites to win.

There is still plenty to play for this term, and as was the case 12 months ago, Tuchel must trust his mobile and versatile front three to help Chelsea claim further silverware and secure the third spot in the Premier League. So, meet the new attack... which is the same as the old attack.

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