As one of the most charismatic and fascinating managers in the Premier League – if not the world – Thomas Tuchel’s virtual defeatism regarding Chelsea’s hopes in the Champions League since their 3-1 defeat by Real Madrid has been rather peculiar.
Not long after Karim Benzema had scored a hat-trick at Stamford Bridge last week to hand Los Blancos the advantage in their quarter-final first leg, the German insisted unequivocally the tie was ‘dead’.
‘Is this [tie] alive with this performance? No, not at the moment,’ Tuchel added. He has since only slightly amended his assessment of the tie ahead of tonight’s second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.
‘Not the biggest chance,’ was Tuchel’s assessment on the eve of the second leg. ‘The task is incredibly high given the circumstances of the first leg plus where and against whom we play this match.
‘It is one of the biggest challenges to perform as the away team at the Bernabeu,’ added Tuchel just before he flew to Spain with a squad missing Romelu Lukaku through injury.
‘Even more difficult if you have to earn a certain result. If you need to win by a minimum of two goals or even a three-goal difference, it makes it almost impossible.’
Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti and midfielder Casemiro insist they are not going to be taken in by the ‘mind games,’ but Tuchel’s doubts about his own side’s chances seem to extend beyond simply trying to get inside the heads of the opposition.
The German could not even be swayed to offer significantly more optimism with the fact his side beat Madrid in the semi-finals of the competition last term.
Nor would he be tempted after their emphatic response to back-to-back defeats at Stamford Bridge against Brentford and Madrid, winning 6-0 away at Southampton on Saturday in the Premier League at the weekend.
Mason Mount and Timo Werner both scored twice while Marcos Alonso and Kai Havertz were the other scorers at St Mary’s, but Tuchel later said: ‘The result and performance (at Southampton) is good because I am sure that lifts everyone’s spirits.
‘But the task is huge. Let’s be honest. Everything is possible in football, but let’s be realistic — it is still the Bernabeu and an opponent very different from today.’
Of that, there is no doubt. Real Madrid do not hold any similar sort of record in LaLiga as Southampton do in England of having conceded six or more goals in 10 Premier League matches, more than any other team in history.
But that is not to suggest Chelsea cannot take some aspects of their game against the Saints into their second leg. Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side were limited to one shot on goal in a much-improved defensive display from the Blues.
True, Southampton do not possess forwards who are as ruthless as Karim Benzema or Vinicius Jnr, but restricting a side to just one shot on goal is a remarkable feat in the Premier League, regardless of the opposition.
However, it was the attack that grabbed the headlines, and the creativity from them and those behind meant there was a chance of the Blues repeating Manchester United and Leicester’s 9-0 victories over the Saints in recent seasons.
Key to their play was Mason Mount, who appeared to recapture his best form for the first time in weeks by creating the first for Alonso and then scoring Chelsea’s second and fifth goals.
With that in mind, the Blues will hope the England international can continue that return to form with the sort of bright and dangerous display between the lines he managed at Valdebebas last season, rather than the hardworking but ultimately fruitless display last week.
But it was the performance of a man who did not even come off the bench in the first leg against Madrid – ultimately snubbed in favour of Lukaku and his subsequent poor showing – who demonstrated the Blues’ potentially greatest asset in the Spanish capital.
Werner, the maligned soul who has largely flattered to deceive since joining for almost £50million two years ago from RB Leipzig, put in a brilliant display against the Saints.
He scored twice for his first league goals since October and hit the woodwork three further times, one of which rebounded for countryman Havertz to finish.
‘These are the types of performances strikers need and we need from the strikers,’ Tuchel said after the game.
‘At some point, there are no words. You have to help yourself. If you sign up for Chelsea or a top club you have to live up to it and accept the pressure.’
It is something Werner has probably struggled to deal with at Stamford Bridge, as evidenced by his glaring miss at Valdebebas last season, where, despite being on the receiving end of chances, failed to take them.
But now the Germany international is a player who is determined to prove a point, having scored just nine goals in 30 appearances so far this term while Havertz and Lukaku have hogged the centre forward limelight, albeit in contrasting circumstances.
If selected, Werner’s pace could prove to be the Blues’ greatest strength, particularly given the absence of Real centre-back Eder Militao through suspension, with the Brazilian often the one using his express pace to make last-ditch challenges.
David Alaba’s centre-back partner is more than likely going to be the versatile Nacho, who while experienced at the age of 32 does not and ultimately never has possessed the sort of pace that could help keep Werner in check.
Tuchel was also keen for the Germany striker to keep pushing himself, adding at the weekend: ‘He still needs to adapt to the physicality of the league and it is a process. This was a big step in the right direction.’
Physicality has in fact been a talking point this week amid talk of generating more of it in an attempt to neutralise Madrid veterans Benzema, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, which will undoubtedly be key to any success.
But it has not been the only way past the 13-time Champions League winners in recent seasons. Their star players are standing up nigh on every game, but they have been far from invincible in Europe in the last couple of seasons.
FC Sheriff from Moldova secured a famous group-stage victory this season following Sebastien Thill’s stunning 89th-minute winner in one of the competition’s most famous shocks.
In the knockout stages, Manchester City – the side the Blues beat in the final last year – produced a late comeback to win at the Bernabeu in 2020 in the last 16.
No doubt they had to regroup after conceding Isco’s opening goal after a cagey first half and ride their luck when Sergio Ramos – who was later sent off – missed a chance to double the hosts’ lead.
But regroup and fight they did, with Gabriel Jesus nodded in from close range before Kevin De Bruyne’s penalty sealed an emphatic win, which was followed up by a win at the Etihad by the same scoreline six months later.
Ajax’s win at the Bernabeu a year previous in the round of 16 was even more emphatic on their way to the semi-finals of the competition that year.
The Dutch giants were only 2-1 down heading to the Bernabeu after Marco Asensio’s 87th-minute winner in Amsterdam.
But Erik ten Hag’s men turned on the style in the Spanish capital, with current Chelsea star Hakim Ziyech – who also scored in the first leg – scoring just seven minutes into the second leg.
David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Lasse Schone added further strikes and some gloss as Real’s quest for a fourth consecutive Champions League triumph fell flat on its face.
Head further back and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi-inspired semi-final victory at the Bernabeu in 2011 – including that stunning solo run and goal – could prove another source of inspiration.
The Blues may not have any player who could claim to match the Argentine’s ability at the time, but the Southampton victory demonstrated they can function as a unit effectively, rather than having to rely on individual brilliance.
‘It’s always allowed to dream,’ said Tuchel. ‘It’s important to imagine things and dream about it but it will not shift the focus from the fact that we need to deliver.
‘We will support our team and try hard. It is worth trying in sports. It is a beauty of the game that everything is possible always.
‘So we will try everything and from there, we see. Hopefully, we have a match where belief grows by our actions.
‘Hopefully, we can fulfil our dream, but realistically we have to invest a lot and be at our very top level.’
Ajax and Man City’s belief certainly grew by their actions. And an early Chelsea goal there could certainly set the cat among the pigeons.
Note: This article is written by Kishan Vaghela and has been published at Daily Mail UK