June 3, 2023

Chelsea will be hoping to establish a first-leg lead in their Champions League quarter-final against Real Madrid tomorrow at Stamford Bridge

Thomas Tuchel laid down a challenge to the Chelsea faithful ahead of tonight’s Champions League quarter-final first leg against Real Madrid. “Everybody needs to be on the top level,” the Blues head coach said. “We have to set the spark but everybody needs to arrive tomorrow ready to support.”

That should not be too much of a problem. When these two sides faced off in last season’s semi-finals, fans were not able to enter the stadium due to Covid restrictions. This time around, Stamford Bridge will be full and ready for the occasion. A hostile atmosphere is likely to be created.

“We want to be physical, intense, focused and to at our very best,” Tuchel explained in his pre-match press conference yesterday afternoon. “This is what we need. We overcame Real Madrid last season but that has nothing to do with our preparation. It’s a new coach, a new team. This game is with spectators and it’s good to go.”

Tuchel has an almost fully-fit squad from which to select his side. There will be no Ben Chilwell, who is still set to miss the remainder of the campaign with an ACL injury sustained in the Champions League group stage win over Juventus back in November, and Callum Hudson-Odoi remains absent with an Achilles issue.

The Chelsea head coach faces more than one difficult selection decision; this is a game that every player will want to be involved in, after all. Yet there are key members of Tuchel’s squad that he will lean on for the visit of Los Blancos. One of those is Edouard Mendy, who is set to start his 20th Champions League game for the Blues. He has kept clean sheets in the previous 19.

After Chelsea conceded four times against Brentford on Saturday, Tuchel is expected to revert to his tried and trusted 3-4-2-1 shape against Real. That will result in Thiago Silva occupying his central role in the three-man defence and Antonio Rudiger being deployed on the left. Given his experience and leadership qualities, Cesar Azpilicueta is likely to be handed the spot on the right.

Reece James was given 25 minutes off the bench on Saturday to regain sharpness ahead of tonight’s clash. He will not be 100% match fit having struggled with injuries over the past three months, but Chelsea are a far better side when he is at right wing-back and that almost guarantees him a start. Marcos Alonso, somewhat by default with Chilwell out, will begin on the opposite flank.

N’Golo Kante may not have been at his brilliant best in 2022 – barring one performance against Lille in the Round of 16 – but his experience, quality, physicality and tenacity will be required against Madrid. Who partners him is difficult with both Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho world-class midfielders, but Tuchel did let slip in his pre-match press conference that the former had been very impressive in training in the build-up to the game.

“He had an outstanding training session today,” Tuchel said. “He’s a fantastic character, a lovely person, a humble guy, so interested in sport, so happy to train and deliver for the team. I was following his career, you could see there was a next step coming and I was sure he had what it takes to make it. I’m so happy to have him, he’s crucial to us both on and off the pitch. Brought up as a team player, knows what it takes, what culture is needed in a big club.”

In attack, Kai Havertz is a certainty to start given his recent form and given he was put up for the pre-match media duties, expect to see Christian Pulisic back involved. The American star didn’t feature at the weekend due to jet leg and fatigue after representing his country. On the right of the front three should be Mason Mount, who scored in last season’s game against Real at Stamford Bridge.

Predicted Chelsea side: Mendy; Azpilicueta, Silva, Rudiger; James, Kante, Kovacic, Alonso; Mount, Havertz, Pulisic

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