Rarity of Real Madrid v Chelsea illustrates true spirit of elite football | Jacob Steinberg

Florentino Pérez is surprisingly bad at counting for someone with so much money. Exuding major Four Seasons Total Landscaping energy, Real Madrid’s president sounded ludicrous when he said that only 40 people gathered outside Stamford Bridge to protest against the European Super League before Chelsea’s game against Brighton last Tuesday.

It was the behaviour of someone so entitled that he sees no need to use facts to make his argument, summing up the tone-deaf mentality of the men who tried to destroy football last week. If Pérez saw only 40 protesters, perhaps it was because the thousands of Chelsea fans raging against the Super League simply made no impact on him.

This 74-year-old billionaire does not understand sport. He does not even understand the European Cup, the competition his club have excelled in since its inception in 1955. Pérez claims to speak for young people, insisting that they crave constant elite matches, but in reality he is the one showing no feel of history.

What the suits behind the Super League wilfully ignore is that big games are exciting because they are rare. Less is more. The spectacle is enhanced when the best teams are kept apart and, although sporting integrity means nothing to Pérez, it is his loss if he cannot understand why Tuesday’s first leg of the Champions League semi-final between Chelsea and Madrid is special.

The rivalry is new and untouched. Chelsea and Madrid have never met in this competition, which must disgust the plotters who want them in a closed league every year. Their shared history is limited to a Super Cup contest in 1998 and a European Cup Winners’ Cup final 50 years ago, both won by Chelsea. It is why the Champions League matters; a semi-final against Real Madrid is supposed to feel different. It is not supposed to be a right.

Timo Werner celebrates scoring against West Ham on Saturday, his first Chelsea goal in over two months.
Timo Werner celebrates scoring against West Ham on Saturday, his first Chelsea goal in over two months. Photograph: Javier García/BPI/Shutterstock

As Thomas Tuchel noted last Tuesday, both sides have earned their place in the last four. Chelsea have been shrewd during the knockout stages, outwitting Atlético Madrid in the last 16 and comfortably defeating Porto. Tuchel has taken them to their first semi-final in this competition in seven years and knows they must raise their level against Madrid, who produced a regal dismissal of Liverpool in the last round.

The tie promises to be fascinating. For a start there is no obvious favourite. You can easily make a case for either side to go through to face Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain.

Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid have the clout, pedigree and knowhow, Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield, and Karim Benzema in attack. They have Eden Hazard to bring off the bench against his old team and another former Chelsea player, Thibaut Courtois, performing wonders in goal.

Yet Tuchel has transformed Chelsea since replacing Frank Lampard in January. They have kept 16 clean sheets in his first 21 games, can be devastating on the break and although they lack a reliable finisher they are adept at shutting down a game if they score first.

It could go either way. As Liverpool found out, Madrid can be unstoppable if Kroos and Modric unleash Benzema, Vinícius Júnior and Marco Asensio.

Since Tuchel’s arrival, though, only Sam Allardyce’s West Brom have troubled Chelsea’s defence. Chelsea are not in the habit of giving away silly chances any more. They are tough to break down in a 3-4-2-1 and showed they can handle the big occasion when they reached the FA Cup final at Manchester City’s expense, luring in Pep Guardiola’s side and repeatedly piercing them with Timo Werner’s pace.

Pierluigi Casiraghi on the ball for Chelsea against Real Madrid in the 1998 Uefa Super Cup.
Pierluigi Casiraghi on the ball for Chelsea against Real Madrid in the 1998 Uefa Super Cup. Photograph: Ben Radford/Allsport

For Tuchel, this is another chance to display his tactical chops. There is no point trying to second-guess the former PSG manager. With a versatile squad, he has varied his approach depending on the opponent. He does not have a set front three, even if Mason Mount is making himself close to undroppable, and he showed his capacity to surprise by starting César Azpilicueta at right wing-back when Chelsea edged closer to qualifying for next season’s Champions League by beating West Ham on Saturday.

Tuchel relishes the strategic battle and his journey underlines how football rewards hard work. The 47-year-old has come a way long way since injury brought an early end to his modest playing career in 1998, the year Zidane was scoring two goals for France in a World Cup final. Tuchel has done it the hard way and was two years into his coaching career at Stuttgart’s academy when Zidane, wearing Madrid’s colours, scored that incredible volley to defeat Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League final.

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Now Tuchel meets Zidane, a three-times European champion as a manager, as an equal. Chelsea’s manager has slogged his way to the top, dedicating his life to football in ways that should make him despise a Super League.

It is why players and managers strive to reach the Champions League. The struggle of competition gives their work meaning. They do not want to succeed through artificial means. They want to earn it. They want Chelsea versus Real Madrid to mean something.

source: theguardian.com