Chelsea v Real Madrid: Zinedine Zidane has big calls to make on Eden Hazard and Sergio Ramos in Champions League
French manager must decide whether key duo are fit enough to start second leg in London
The job of modern football manager is multi-tasked. All coaches know that when they enter the profession. But you can forgive Zinedine Zidane for thinking he has been pulled in abnormal directions ahead of Wednesday’s second leg of Real Madrid’s Champions League semi-final against Chelsea in London.
First he had to worry about the Madrid local elections. Not because of any strong view on whether the outcome swings to the political left or right but because Spanish law requires that a small number of residents from all walks of life be available to help out with polling duties.
They are selected by an arbitrary draw, and Madrid’s long-serving left-back Marcelo’s name was among those called up for Tuesday. He had to be at a voting centre first thing in the morning, and there was no certainty he would have completed his required tasks in time to catch Real Madrid’s flight to London.
Marcelo did make it, a little breathless. Then there was more suspense – around midfielder Fede Valverde. He has been self-isolating after a positive Covid test last month.
Valverde served his required quarantine but could not travel until he returned a negative test. He was swabbed on Monday, and the results were inconclusive. He took another PCR test Tuesday morning at 7am, and when the negative result came in, he rushed to join the rest of the squad on their midday flight.
Having fretted over those deadlines, Zidane faced the really hard decisions, calculations based on medical bulletins, recuperation timetables and, ultimately, his trust in two of his most valued players.
On the one hand, his captain, Sergio Ramos; on the other Eden Hazard, the player Zidane pressed hardest to sign but a phantom presence for most of the last two years because his Madrid career has been so disrupted by injury.
Gallery: Real 2 Osasuna 0
Against Osasuna on Saturday, Hazard started a game for the first time since January. It was a performance with flashes of promise, and, just as important, no physical breakdown. But he is a long way from his best rhythm.
There is risk in starting Hazard against Chelsea, but then again there could be no greater stimulus for the player than making his European comeback at Stamford Bridge, where Hazard spent seven dazzling years.
“Little by little he is coming back,” said Zidane of Hazard, who he has learned to watch through gritted teeth, so often has the Belgian returned from injury only to be immediately sidelined with a recurrence of the problem, or by a fresh muscle strain. But the manager’s vision of a fit Hazard as the ideal partner for Karim Benzema, his centre-forward and leading scorer, remains undimmed. "We'll need Eden, and this is a good moment for him," he added.
As for Ramos, perhaps only the now-departed Cristiano Ronaldo had more impact on making Madrid European champions four times between 2014 and 2018. But Ramos is rusty. The skipper was on the bench at the weekend, and has seen almost as little action, because of injury and testing positive for Covid-19, as Hazard over the past three months. “The main thing is that he is with us,” said Zidane.
Raphael Varane is not, having suffered what is Madrid’s 55th different injury setback of the season.
That makes the need for a senior central defender – Ramos – the more pressing. The compensation for Zidane is that, in a period of makeshift line-ups, the deputies to Ramos and Varane, namely Nacho and Gabriel Militao, have risen in the coach’s estimation.
They endured a tough opening 20 minutes in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea’s zippy strikers in the first leg, but found ways to impose some control.
Zidane is reassured that, in the absence of his preferred right-backs – the injured Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vazquez – Nacho could fill in in that position. Ferland Mendy, the left-back who missed the first leg, should be fit enough to match the likes of Timo Werner, or Christian Pulisic or Kai Havertz for pace at Stamford Bridge.
The next puzzle for Zidane? A back three or a line of four? Zidane altered his default 4-3-3 in the first leg because of depleted resources and to match Chelsea in midfield.
This time, with Madrid kicking off one away goal in arrears, he needs to be proactive against a Chelsea boasting 17 clean sheets from the 23 matches since Thomas Tuchel took charge as manager.
It’s an ominous statistic to confront a partially-fit Hazard with on his West London return. He served at Chelsea through seven of Tuchel’s predecessors. None came in and so quickly constructed a defensive barrier as solid as Tuchel has.
Updated: May 5, 2021 12:47 PM