Madrid glad it's still in it after struggles against Chelsea

·4 min read

MADRID — Things didn’t go well for Real Madrid right from the start against Chelsea in the first leg of the Champions League semifinals.

Despite being the home team, Madrid’s setup with three defenders failed miserably at the Alfredo Di Stéfano Stadium on Tuesday with Chelsea easing through the defence and taking control early on.

The English team scored once and could have added a few more before Madrid equalized from a set piece before halftime.

It was only a 1-1 home draw, but there was reason for the Spanish powerhouse to celebrate the result.

“It was complicated,” Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said. “It’s a Champions League semifinal and you are playing against a good team. You have to suffer and we suffered, but I’m happy for the players because we are still alive and we know that we have to go to London and score goals and try to win the game.”

Madrid looked lost at the start, with its three central defenders — Raphael Varane, Nacho Fernández and Éder Militão — unable to contain the Chelsea forwards.

Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic were comfortable up front and didn’t have trouble finding spaces behind the Madrid defence . Fullbacks Marcelo and Dani Carvajal didn't to much in attack and struggled to help defensively. Pulisic became the first United States international to score in a Champions League semifinal match with his goal in the 14th minute, when he received a pass unmarked inside the area and calmly got past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois before finding the net.

“We weren’t able to do what we wanted to do in the beginning of the match,” Marcelo said. “We knew that could happen, but we also knew that we still have another match to play. We are OK, we know what we’ll need to do. The return match will be different.”

The second leg will be on May 5 in London, when 13-time champion Madrid will need to score at least once to return to the Champions League final after a two-year absence.

Zidane had to make changes in the second half to move away from the initial setup of three central defenders and finally improve the team defensively. Zidane has preferred the 3-5-2 scheme recently but had already been forced to switch from it in the middle of other games this season.

“We had to change something at halftime because the first half didn’t go the way we wanted it to go, especially in terms of pressure,” Zidane said. “We made some changes and we pressed a bit higher up and more as a unit. We did it much better in the second half.”

Zidane hopes to have the return of some key defensive players for the second leg, including captain Sergio Ramos, who has been sidelined with an injury. Zidane also couldn’t count on left back Ferland Mendy on Tuesday.

Ramos was out because of suspensions when Madrid was eliminated in the round of 16 in the last two seasons.

Madrid was far from its best in attack as well on Tuesday, largely because of Chelsea’s good setup defensively under manager Thomas Tuchel. Madrid struggled to create significant scoring opportunities and only found the net off a 29th-minute set piece that ended with a nice finish by Karim Benzema inside the area.

The goal was Benzema’s 71st in the Champions League, moving him level with Raúl González in fourth position in the competition’s all-time scoring list.

“They managed to break through our first line of pressure and were very direct. That’s why they caused so much danger at the start of the game,” Varane said. "But after Karim’s goal, we controlled the game better and dictated the pace.”

Madrid is still in contention for the Spanish league title but Zidane has already indicated he will rest some of his regular starters in Saturday’s match against Osasuna to keep his team fresh for the second leg against Chelsea.

“I’m sure the return leg will be tough and we're going to have to manage the players’ game time," Zidane said. "There’s no question about that.”

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Tales Azzoni, The Associated Press