November 30, 2022

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Chelsea: Thomas Tuchel faces a selection headache against Real Madrid

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Politicians often asked to be judged on their first 100 days in office. Perhaps football managers should do the same.

Thomas Tuchel reaches that milestone on Thursday, by which time we’ll know whether Chelsea have a Champions League final to look forward to or not.

The German has barely put a foot wrong since he replaced Frank Lampard back on January 26: 15 wins from 23 matches, just two defeats, a remarkable 17 clean sheets and progress to the FA Cup final.

Thomas Tuchel faces a real dilemma in picking his forward line for Chelsea's Champions League semi-final, second leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday night

Thomas Tuchel faces a real dilemma in picking his forward line for Chelsea's Champions League semi-final, second leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday night

Thomas Tuchel faces a real dilemma in picking his forward line for Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final, second leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday night

Chelsea have the advantage of an away goal after Christian Pulisic scored in Madrid last week

Chelsea have the advantage of an away goal after Christian Pulisic scored in Madrid last week

Chelsea have the advantage of an away goal after Christian Pulisic scored in Madrid last week

If Tuchel can overcome Real Madrid on Wednesday night and take Chelsea to the Istanbul showpiece on May 29, he’d arguably have a concrete claim to the most impressive start made by any manager, ever.

Everything appears at first glance to be hunky dory for Tuchel ahead of the Stamford Bridge clash – an away goal in the bank thanks to Christian Pulisic last week and a comfortable weekend win over Fulham without any fresh injury concerns.

As Tuchel said on Saturday, ‘we are absolutely in a place and a situation where you want to have arrived.’

But Real aren’t going to surrender quietly and chances are Chelsea will have to score at least once to win the tie.

So that presented Tuchel with a considerable headache. Which of his expensive attacking options can be trusted with the task at hand?

Last week in Madrid, he went with Pulisic and Mason Mount supporting centre forward Timo Werner. 

Pulisic fires home Chelsea's goal at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in the first leg last week

Pulisic fires home Chelsea's goal at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in the first leg last week

Pulisic fires home Chelsea’s goal at the Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano in the first leg last week

Kai Havertz netted two goals as Chelsea comfortably beat Fulham 2-0 over the weekend

Kai Havertz netted two goals as Chelsea comfortably beat Fulham 2-0 over the weekend

Kai Havertz netted two goals as Chelsea comfortably beat Fulham 2-0 over the weekend

Both Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz came on with around a quarter of the match left after Pulisic’s opener had been cancelled out by Karim Benzema.

Against Fulham on Saturday, Werner and Havertz formed a two-pronged strike force supported by Ziyech in the No 10 role. Mount played further back.

So Chelsea’s flexibility in attack could be described as both Tuchel’s friend and foe at the moment. Plenty of options, plenty of combinations, but with potentially one exception none of them a 100 per cent guaranteed pick.

Let’s start with Werner. It seems remarkable the £53million striker could finish his first season at Chelsea with Champions League and FA Cup winners’ medals given all the criticism that has come his way.

This tie would be so much more comfortable for Chelsea has Werner not missed that six-yard sitter last week and Real’s former Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was caught on camera appearing to joke with Olivier Giroud about how easy it was to keep out.

Thibaut Courtois joked that all he had to do was put his foot out to deny Timo Werner a goal

Thibaut Courtois joked that all he had to do was put his foot out to deny Timo Werner a goal

Thibaut Courtois joked that all he had to do was put his foot out to deny Timo Werner a goal

Werner (centre) missed a sitter after being played in by Pulisic against Real Madrid

Werner (centre) missed a sitter after being played in by Pulisic against Real Madrid

Werner (centre) missed a sitter after being played in by Pulisic against Real Madrid

It was another night to forget for Werner as he struggled in front of goal again

It was another night to forget for Werner as he struggled in front of goal again

It was another night to forget for Werner as he struggled in front of goal again

The fact Werner now has more assists (13) than goals (11) this season is either an embarrassing indictment of his finishing skills in a Chelsea shirt or a sign that Tuchel has evolved his game into something more well-rounded.

His assist for Havertz against Fulham was a reward for another hard-working performance as he roamed across the forward line but Chelsea paid the big bucks for Werner to score goals and he doesn’t do that often enough.

Put it this way – Tuchel’s thoughts will revolve around whether Werner can be trusted to put that one crucial chance away against Real Madrid. At the moment, you wouldn’t back him.

After being left on the bench last week, Havertz did as much as he could do against Fulham to convince Tuchel he deserves to start the second leg.

Two goals capped a man-of-the-match performance in the false nine role, and on recent evidence the £89m German youngster is the most reliable option in the front three.

Havertz did as much as he could do against Fulham to convince Tuchel to start him this week

Havertz did as much as he could do against Fulham to convince Tuchel to start him this week

Havertz did as much as he could do against Fulham to convince Tuchel to start him this week

Chelsea top scorers 

12 – Tammy Abraham

11 – Timo Werner, Olivier Giroud

8 – Mason Mount, Kai Havertz

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7 – Jorginho

6 – Christian Pulisic

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Chelsea assist makers 

10 – Timo Werner

7 – Mason Mount, Ben Chilwell

6 – Kai Havertz

5 – Callum Hudson-Odoi, Reece James

4 – Tammy Abraham, Hakim Ziyech 

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With Raphael Varane out injured for Real and a potentially rusty Sergio Ramos set to step into their back line, not having an actual No 9 to man-mark could be an advantage.

‘Maybe we’ll play no striker at all, then Ramos has nothing to fight against,’ said Tuchel on Saturday. He was smiling as he said it but Havertz certainly has the attributes to completely throw Real’s back line.

On the flip side, Fulham are staring down the barrel of relegation from the Premier League and Havertz, with eight goals and eight assists this season, does blow hot and cold.

Ziyech didn’t imagine being converted from a flying winger to a No 10 during his first season at Chelsea but Tuchel’s preference for wing-backs has made it a reality.

The Fulham match was just the latest in which he has played centrally in recent months and, despite having chances to make life more comfortable for Chelsea in the first-half, he struggled to make too much impact and was taken off for N’Golo Kante after 66 minutes.

Over the weekend, Chelsea legend Frank Leboeuf claimed that Ziyech is ‘very frustrated’ when not stationed on the wing, calling him a ‘copy-cat of Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez’.

Hakim Ziyech has been converted from a flying winger to a less than effective No 10 of late

Hakim Ziyech has been converted from a flying winger to a less than effective No 10 of late

Hakim Ziyech has been converted from a flying winger to a less than effective No 10 of late

Ziyech is far from a regular starter for Tuchel's Chelsea as he adapts to a central position

Ziyech is far from a regular starter for Tuchel's Chelsea as he adapts to a central position

Ziyech is far from a regular starter for Tuchel’s Chelsea as he adapts to a central position 

Ziyech has started only three of the 10 Champions League games he has been available for this season and just 14 Premier League matches.

You do wonder whether he has a role to play in Tuchel’s plans and he is increasingly looking like a very pricy square peg being jammed into a round hole.

Pulisic will hope the goal he scored in Madrid will earn him a starting place in the return game. The American was left on the bench against Fulham, which could be interpreted as a means to keep him fresh for Real.

Again, he has been forced to adapt his role to a more central position under Tuchel, with whom he’d worked previously at Borussia Dortmund.

Pulisic starts about as regularly as Ziyech and it’ll be a straight choice between the two in all likelihood for Wednesday.

Tuchel smiles as Pulisic celebrates his vital goal in the first leg in Spain last week

Tuchel smiles as Pulisic celebrates his vital goal in the first leg in Spain last week

Tuchel smiles as Pulisic celebrates his vital goal in the first leg in Spain last week

Mason Mount has become as needed by Tuchel as he was under predecessor Frank Lampard

Mason Mount has become as needed by Tuchel as he was under predecessor Frank Lampard

Mason Mount has become as needed by Tuchel as he was under predecessor Frank Lampard

The only guaranteed starter is Mount, whose ability to play in pretty much any of the midfield or attacking midfield positions makes him invaluable.

Tuchel could probably have left him out against Fulham to preserve his legs for the Real return, but he didn’t and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that he values Mount as highly as Frank Lampard did.

If Mount is an assured pick in the forward trio, that leaves the other four fighting it out for two places. Unlike the England international, Tuchel isn’t entirely convinced by any of them.

And what’s remarkable is that Chelsea’s leading goalscorer this season – Tammy Abraham – and a player who has scored 11 times – Olivier Giroud – will be fortunate to get a place on the bench.  

It all makes Tuchel’s task so fiendishly difficult ahead of the most important game of Chelsea’s season so far.

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