This was Real Madrid’s ninth Champions League semi-final appearance in the last 11 seasons, but, as Chelsea opened up the Los Blancos defence time and again, it was hard to escape the feeling that this is a club on the wane.
No longer are Real Madrid the team to beat in European football. That's not to say there is no longer quality there, of course there is; a club of this stature will always have the capability of winning big matches. But this is not a vintage Real squad, and, even more worrying for fans of the Spanish giants, the spine of the side are all in the autumn of their careers.
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Zinedine Zidane has somehow kept this season together, with Real still in the La Liga title hunt and once again reaching the last four of Europe’s biggest competition. But Thomas Tuchel’s lively Chelsea brutally exposed the weaknesses of Zizou’s team over two legs.
The slick Premier League side could, and probably should, have returned from the first leg with a significant lead after outplaying their hosts for much of the 1-1 draw. And Chelsea again should have run away with it at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday evening.
The outstanding N’Golo Kante and Mason Mount were a threat all night, playing through Madrid’s defences in a manner that left the Spanish visitors looking pedestrian at times. And Chelsea could have had the tie wrapped up well before Mount’s decisive goal in the 86th-minute. They would have done, were it not for a disallowed Timo Werner goal, a string of missed chances, and a number of decent saves by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.
Zidane and his players trudged from the field as Chelsea celebrated a 3-1 aggregate win, but in truth the two-goal loss flattered Real. And many at the club knew this was coming.
At the heart of Florentino Perez’s ramblings during the European Super League shambles last month, there was an underlying tone of concern. The Madrid supremo no longer believes that his club can compete at the level they used to.
“We are just working on saving football,” Perez bleated. “Madrid’s income is falling from €900m to €600m this year.
“As for signings like [Erling] Haaland or [Kylian] Mbappe, they won't exist without the Super League. It cannot continue – at the moment the rich are those who are losing money.”
It’s hard to feel sympathy for Perez, particularly as so much of Real’s plight is not down to the pandemic – as he asserted – but due to wasteful spending of their own.
For it’s not as if Madrid haven’t spent money. Since the summer of 2018, the following signings have all arrived at the Bernabeu for transfer fees in excess of £40m: Vinicius Junior, Eden Hazard, Luka Jovic, Eder Militao, Rodrygo and Ferland Mendy. Mendy is a good full-back and Vinicius has had some sparky performances, but that is not a transfer history that reflects well on the club’s recruiters.
And they may well continue to regret such poor spending, with the squad clearly in need of a major overhaul just as the well appears to have dried up. Arguably the four best performers on a disappointing night at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday were Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema. All are over 30. Ramos and Modric are 35. It’s going to take a significant rebuild for Real to replace a quartet of that quality.
Whether Zidane will lead the rebuild remains to be seen, but Chelsea’s fully deserved semi-final win showed up the Real Madrid squad for what it is – a declining force, increasingly living off past glories.
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