Eden Hazard is happy to keep progressing "step by step" after playing 24 minutes for Real Madrid against his Chelsea "friends" in the Champions League.

Hazard started from the bench for Madrid in Tuesday's home first leg of their semi-final tie, which ended 1-1.

The winger had only returned from more than a month out against Real Betis at the weekend, finally putting his latest injury setback behind him.

A series of issues have meant the meeting with former club Chelsea saw Hazard make just his 38th Madrid appearance since signing in 2019.

Like much of his career in Spain, it was a largely forgettable cameo, having only 12 touches and failing to attempt or create a shot.

But Hazard was simply happy to be back involved, explaining: "I just want to go step by step.

"Of course I want to play, I want to be on the pitch, but the last game I played 15 minutes, today I played a bit more.

"We have a couple of big games to play until the end of the season, so I just want to be ready for them.

"Now I feel better, the condition's better and the body's better, so I'm just happy that I can play again."

Hazard has so far been involved in only nine Madrid goals, yet he scored 110 times and provided 81 assists in seven years with Chelsea to earn his move.

"It's always good to play against friends," he added. "I have a couple of friends over there.

"But now I'm a Real Madrid player, so I just want to win. It doesn't matter if it's Chelsea against us or another team, I just want to win.

"But it's always good to see some good faces."

Hazard will hope to be able to use his experience of Stamford Bridge to Madrid's advantage in next week's return leg.

Madrid have not beaten Chelsea in four meetings but may now require a victory to advance after conceding an away goal to Christian Pulisic.

Karim Benzema replied for Los Blancos long before Hazard's introduction with his team's sole shot on target.

Chelsea captain Cesar Azpilicueta rued missed chances in the first leg of their 1-1 Champions League semi-final draw against Real Madrid.

Thomas Tuchel's men dominated the opening exchanges at Valdebebas, with Christian Pulisic's splendidly taken goal giving them a 14th-minute lead.

But the Premier League side arguably let the 13-time European champions off the hook, with Timo Werner once again the chief culprit when it came to being wasteful in front of goal.

Karim Benzema gave the Germany international and his Chelsea team-mates a lesson in clinical finishing when he swivelled to volley a stunning equaliser against the run of play before the half hour. That remained Madrid's only attempt on target over the course of the 90 minutes.

"I think we started really well in the first 20 or 25 minutes. We got the goal and could have got more goals," Azpilicueta told BT Sport.

"They came back from a set play. After that, some moments we controlled and others we suffered.

"It is just the first half, we knew against Real Madrid it would be tough.

"We started with courage, we had to perform at our best level. The semi-final of a Champions League asks you to play your best. We missed that little last pass where we could choose the best option.

"I think in the overall analysis we performed well."

Pulisic was electrifying during the opening exchanges and Azpilicueta marvelled at the 22-year-old's coolness under pressure after he rounded Thibaut Courtois and lined up an unerring finish as Madrid defenders scampered back towards their own goal line.

"It was a great finish, great composure. When he was in front of the goal he took the best decision," he added.

"With and without the ball he makes difficult runs to defend.

"He is a young player, growing and improving. I'm very pleased with his goal. He is a very important player for the team."

Although Benzema's athleticism and clever movement caught the eye, Azpilicueta was frustrated to see Casemiro and Eder Militao win headers in the Chelsea box to make the equaliser possible.

"It was a set play, they win two headers in the box," he lamented.

"He scored a great goal, he is a very good striker.

"He dropped, he got the ball for the goal. We have to be aware. Wednesday is a decisive game and we have to be ready for it."

Worried about football's global appeal to the younger generation? Fearful the Champions League has lost its lustre beyond the core of 'legacy' (urgh!) fans in its traditional markets?

Perhaps what you need is a dazzlingly skilful 22-year-old becoming the first player from the United States to score in the semi-finals of Europe's top competition, while generally wreaking havoc every time he has the ball.

Florentino Perez must have loved Christian Pulisic taking his Real Madrid apart. The Chelsea forward made the 13-time winners of the competition Perez sought to torpedo last week look more non-league than Super League.

Pulisic was at the heart of an utterly dominant opening for Chelsea – themselves foolhardy signatories to the not-so-brave new world last week – nodding down for his beleaguered attacking colleague Timo Werner to volley too close to Thibaut Courtois between the Madrid posts.

Shortly afterwards, Pulisic took matters into his own hands, darting across a static Los Blancos backline to collect Antonio Rudiger's raking pass. His first touch was poor, but everything else from that point was perfection.

Madrid's defenders scattered and then cowered towards their goalmouth. Werner found himself demoted from strike partner to spectator at The Christian Pulisic Show. The American rounded Courtois and took aim high into the net.

Just after that, Nacho should have been booked for bringing down the goalscorer, with Eder Militao having also escaped censure for clobbering through the same player. Pulisic was everywhere.

If Perez was worried about addled young minds missing all this, no problem. It all happened inside the first 15 minutes. Plenty of time to watch, absorb, enjoy and then stick Fortnite on.

Amid his compilation of violent brain vomits last week, Perez suggested football matches should be shorter to appeal to fans more than 50 years his junior – a demographic with whom he appears to feel he is completely in tune.

Of course, it's an awful idea. And it is hard to think of many teams who would suffer more in a world of fast food football than the aging Real Madrid team he no longer has the bank balance to reupholster.

Zinedine Zidane opted to match Chelsea's shape, only to find a reinforced five-man backline somehow riddled with holes as Pulisic and Werner made merry early on.

Much is made of the esteemed midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric having a combined age of 95. As N'Golo Kante jackhammered around them, each one of them looked about 95.

Collectively, they needed 20 minutes or so to click into gear. Even then, they negotiated the rain-lashed terrain of Valdebebas tentatively.

The one exception was Karim Benzema, Madrid's talismanic centre-forward who nodded and licked his lips with menace during the pre-game anthem, before basically playing Chelsea on his own for a good while.

At a time when Madrid's superstars have moved on from either the club or their peak playing days, Benzema stands tall week after week.

Against the run of play, he had his 71st Champions League goal, drawing level with Madrid great Raul in fourth on the all-time list. Inside a crowded penalty area, he controlled the ball with his forehead before swivelling to detonate an unstoppable volley.

Benzema's goal was one that beautifully combined the cerebral and the visceral and would have been at home in any of Madrid's previous great eras in this competition, eras that are connected to the present by such moments of brilliance.

Goals like Benzema's shimmer brighter through their link to past context. A great Real Madrid goal in a European Cup semi-final really means something.

From that moment, Chelsea's more nimble operators became engaged in an arm wrestle that was more to Madrid's liking. Even when Thomas Tuchel introduced Kai Havertz, Reece James and Hakim Ziyech in a triple change after the hour, the hosts remained upright on weary limbs.

Having seen his team be so inept in the initial exchanges, Zidane was able to play with Chelsea's tensions and emotions by sending on Eden Hazard.

It remained 1-1, a result most teams would be delighted to take into a home second leg. But Madrid do funny things in this tournament. They defy logic to find reserves that should have long run dry. They are propelled by purpose and history.

Above all the others, simply wanting to take his team away from the Champions League might have been Florentino Perez's most stupid idea of all.

Karim Benzema spared Real Madrid but Christian Pulisic's away goal gives Chelsea the advantage after their Champions League semi-final first leg ended 1-1 at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano.

Zinedine Zidane's side were guilty of a sluggish start in Valdebebas and, although they managed to restore parity, rarely did Los Blancos look likely to take a win to Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea were good value for their 14th-minute lead as Pulisic added the finish to fine individual work, though Benzema – arguably Madrid's only threatening player in the match – netted to draw level with Raul as the joint-fourth leading scorer in the Champions League with 71.

A significantly cagier second period followed and Madrid were even less of a danger to Edouard Mendy's goal, while Chelsea largely seemed content to settle for their away-goal advantage.

Madrid looked to be in for a long night amid a rocky start that almost saw them fall behind after just 10 minutes, as Timo Werner inexplicably shot straight at Thibaut Courtois from close range.

The visitors did not have to wait much longer for another chance, however, and Pulisic took full advantage as he raced on to Antonio Rudiger's long pass, coolly evaded Courtois and then shot between two defenders on the line.

But a few moments after hitting the post from distance, Benzema brought Madrid level in the 29th minute with an emphatic volley roughly six yards from goal following a lovely first touch with his head.

The tempo of the match changed considerably in the second period, however, with neither side much of a threat to the opposing goal.

A triple change by Chelsea just past the hour seemed to increase their control over Madrid, who themselves brought on former Stamford Bridge favourite Eden Hazard.

The final chance fell to Madrid in the 89th minute but Varane's deflected header went just wide, meaning Zidane's men will need to score in London next week.

When FIFA announced last year they were set to introduce limits on the number of players teams could send out on loan, unsurprisingly many people's first thoughts turned to Chelsea.

At the time, the Blues had a remarkable 28 players at other clubs, though this was by no means a recent trend; in 2018-19, that figure was 41.

The 'hoarding' of talent might be a solid ploy when looking to stunt the growth of a rival team or generate long-term revenue on Football Manager, but in the real world it was a practice that had long attracted criticism.

While by no means the only club in the world to have lots of young players out on loan, Chelsea have – rightly or wrongly – arguably been the most synonymous with it.

Some feel this has directly contributed to the club's struggles in developing homegrown talent because they have so many players, whereas others point out it offers more players the chance to play first-team football at a higher level than the Under-23s.

Putting aside some of the moral issues, Mason Mount falls into the latter category and proves there is a route to the first team through the fog of war for Chelsea's loan army.

By his own admission Mount needed an extra kick when he was in Chelsea's Under-23s as an 18-year-old, and that led to his temporary switch to the Eredivisie with Vitesse, where he won the club's Player of the Year award.

But it's unlikely even he realised how important his next move would be as he linked up with Chelsea great Frank Lampard.

In at the deep end

Mount made 44 appearances across all competitions for Derby County in 2018-19 as they missed out on promotion in the play-off final, but regardless of that ultimate disappointment it proved a massive year for both he and Lampard.

With Maurizio Sarri departing Stamford Bridge to join Juventus following Europa League success, Lampard was brought back to the club as head coach. Given his status and the trust he placed in young players – and, more pertinently, young players owned by Chelsea – at Derby, Lampard was seen as the ideal candidate to guide the team through a transfer embargo by bringing through homegrown talent.

Whether or not Lampard was a success as Chelsea coach is a discussion for another time, but his faith in Mount was unquestionable, chucking him straight into the team on the first day of the 2019-20 season.

The Blues suffered a rather harsh 4-0 defeat at Manchester United, but Mount didn't look out of his depth in the Premier League.

He clearly earnt the trust of his manager, with Lampard using the midfielder in 37 league matches over the course of the season, more than any other player. Across all competitions, the young Englishman made a whopping 53 appearances, missing just two games all year.

Mount finished his debut season with 12 goal involvements (seven scored, five set up), a figure bettered by only Tammy Abraham (18), Willian (16) and Christian Pulisic (13) in the Chelsea squad.

But that doesn't quite tell the whole story. To say he was consistent throughout the season would be a lie, as after the turn of the year there was a growing sense of frustration regarding his form. Between the start of November and the final day of the season, his three assists amounted to a couple of corner deliveries for Antonio Rudiger to head home, and a free-kick against Arsenal that Bernd Leno made a mess of. Mount's one open-play assist of 2019-20 came on the final day of the season against Wolves.

Some felt Mount was being overworked by Lampard, others put his issues down to being used in a variety of roles.

The 'teacher's pet' tag began to raise its head, with Lampard's almost incessant use of Mount leading to suggestions of preferential treatment.

Getting past this was going to be Mount's Everest.

A star of his own merit

When Thomas Tuchel was hired as Lampard's replacement in January, there wouldn't have been too many particularly worried for Mount's future given he had been a fixture in the team, his 2,130 minutes played across all competitions the most of anyone in the Blues' squad.

But when Mount was dropped for the German's first game in charge, Tuchel's decision certainly made people sit up and take note.

While he explained it away as opting to go with experience, dropping Mount suggested he had to earn his place again.

And it would be fair to say he's risen to the challenge.

"I understood and wanted to get back into the team, so that motivation and that fire that I have inside me came out," Mount said at a news conference last month. "I really tried to push to get back into the team. It's been brilliant."

Since then, he's become more productive almost across the board in the final third under Tuchel than he had been for Lampard in 2020-21.

Seemingly one of the main contributing factors is his role. While Lampard used Mount in numerous positions, Tuchel has largely deployed him further up the pitch in an attempt to get him closer to the opposition's penalty area.

Touch maps show a significant change between the two coaches' usage of the 21-year-old. While Mount's touches per 90 are almost identical under the two managers, Lampard deployed Mount deeper than his German successor, while Tuchel has shown a clear desire to get him on the ball in more advanced areas.

So much of the positive work that Mount does with the ball is not captured in goals and assists, the baseline figures that many would deem the primary indicator of an attacking midfielder's contribution. His link play and overall involvement in Chelsea’s attack can be highlighted by sequences framework.

In the 14 games since Tuchel's arrival, only Bruno Fernandes (91) has been involved in more open play sequences (or 'passages of play') that have resulted in a shot than Mount's 86. This figure translates to 7.6 sequences per 90 minutes, which is a big increase on the 5.6 per 90 he was involved in during Lampard's 18 top-flight games this term.

Not only is Mount involved more heavily in Chelsea's attacking play under Tuchel, but his involvement is generating better quality chances. The expected goals value from these sequences has increased from 0.43 per 90 minutes under Lampard to 0.7 under Tuchel. Simply put, Chelsea are creating greater quality chances with Mount further up the pitch.

Similarly, the England international's six goal-ending sequences in the same period are more than any of his team-mates have contributed to.

Even though he's still without a single open-play assist in 2020-21, it's clear to see that Mount's strong associative talents and ability to play tidily in busier areas of the pitch make him a real asset to Tuchel, who has acted quickly to shift him into a position that seemingly suits him better. He's also proving more decisive, with four of his six Premier League goals coming since January 25 – that's more than any of his team-mates in that period.

In general, though, scoring has been a bit of an issue for Chelsea. The likes of Timo Werner and Kai Havertz haven't properly hit their stride yet, and this has undoubtedly impacted Mount's baseline assist numbers, as his expected assists total from open play is 4.1. With more clinical finishing he wouldn't still be sat on zero.

Mount's form lately suggests that once Chelsea begin to click in front of goal, he'll be key to much of their build-up if he's not the one finishing the chances.

Another string to Mount's bow is that he is a genuine set-piece specialist. His corner deliveries are consistently dangerous, and he's created more chances from set plays (38) in 2020-21 than any other player. That's six more than James Ward-Prowse and 16 more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, both of whom have received acclaim for their set-piece prowess over the years.

When thinking of players you might consider to be particularly good at dead-ball situations, Mount may not be the first that comes to mind among non-Chelsea fans, but maybe he should be.

An unsung hero

Mount's improvements certainly don't begin and end with his creativity in the final third, however. Tuchel's preference to play him more centrally is also leading to greater off-the-ball productivity.

He's always been a hard worker and certainly couldn't be accused of neglecting the less glamorous side of the game, yet his role for Tuchel seems to be harnessing his attitude and tirelessness even more effectively.

Mount is averaging 2.2 attempted tackles per 90 minutes under Tuchel, up from 1.7 across Lampard's time at the club. While he may be winning tackles at an almost identical rate (0.95 per 90 mins, up from 0.93), the increase in challenge attempts suggests Mount's work rate makes him a good fit for Tuchel's intense pressing system.

Since the German's first game in charge, Chelsea have the lowest PPDA (9.2) in the Premier League, proof that they press higher than anyone else. PPDA is the number of opposition passes allowed outside of the pressing team's own defensive third, divided by the number of defensive actions by the pressing team outside of their own defensive third. A lower figure indicates a higher level of pressing.

Mount leads Tuchel's press from the front. The midfielder has won possession in the final third 17 times in 19 games for Tuchel. Over the same period, İlkay Gundogan (20), Mohamed Salah (20) and Kevin De Bruyne (23) are the only Premier League players to have a better record than the Chelsea star across all competitions.

A homegrown beacon of hope

Throughout Roman Abramovich's time as Chelsea owner, the club has often found itself in a sort of purgatory. While they've undoubtedly wanted success and a first team full of homegrown talents, it's difficult to say they've truly struck a balance between the two.

After all, since the start of the century, Chelsea products reaching 100 Premier League appearances for the club have been a rarity.

John Terry, of course, leads the way, but beyond him it becomes a bit murky. John Obi Mikel and Nemanja Matic perhaps come closest to fitting the bill, though both did play senior football elsewhere before joining the club as teenagers.

Granted, Mount remains a little way off yet as well having played 69 times in the top-flight for Chelsea, but he's quickly making up ground.

Not too far behind him are Tammy Abraham (57), Callum Hudson-Odoi (55) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (54), while Andreas Christensen – at Chelsea since 2013 – has featured 72 times.

What's in store for their long-term futures at Chelsea remains to be seen – they are far less certain than Mount.

But Mount especially shows that where there wasn't much hope for young talent coming through at Chelsea in the past, now there is for arguably the first time in the Abramovich era.

The accusations of Mount being a 'teacher's pet' have faded. Tuchel has no ulterior motive to keep picking Mount other than the fact he wants to pick the best side to win games. And with just two defeats in his first 21 games for Chelsea in all competitions, the German is certainly doing just that.

Will Cristiano Ronaldo still be at Juventus next season?

Ronaldo's future appears to depend on Juve's Champions League participation.

Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain loom large for the Portuguese superstar.

 

TOP STORY – MAN UTD OR PSG FOR RONALDO?

Cristiano Ronaldo is weighing up whether to return to Manchester United or join Paris Saint-Germain if Juventus fail to qualify for the Champions League next season, according to Tuttosport.

Ronaldo's future has dominated headlines amid speculation the five-time Ballon d'Or winner is set to leave Serie A giants Juve at the end of the current campaign.

Initially linked with Real Madrid, Ronaldo is reportedly eyeing either United or PSG in order to play in the Champions League.

 

ROUND-UP

- Fabrizio Romano reports RB Leipzig head coach Julian Nagelsmann is set to replace Hansi Flick at Bayern Munich. Despite interest from Tottenham and other clubs, Nagelsmann has agreed a five-year contract with the Bundesliga champions, who must negotiate a fee with Leipzig.

Raphael Varane wants to leave Madrid amid links with Chelsea, United and PSG, claims Diario AS. The France international defender is contracted to the Santiago Bernabeu until next season but Madrid are believed to be willing to cash in on Varane as they look to fund moves for PSG's Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland, who has also been linked with Liverpool, United, Manchester City, Juve, Bayern and Barcelona.

- Manchester Evening News says United are interested in Slavia Prague's 21-year-old forward Abdallah Sima.

- The Sun reports England centre-back John Stones is in advanced talks with Premier League leaders City over a new five-year contract.

- Antonio Conte is dreaming of prising Udinese star Rodrigo De Paul to Inter, says Calciomercato. The Argentina international has also been linked with Napoli and Leeds United.

It is business time in the Champions League as the 2020-21 semi-finals get under way with the first legs this week.

Chelsea visit Real Madrid, who have seen pre-match questions focus on their continued pursuit of the controversial European Super League.

In the other tie, Paris Saint-Germain are the only remaining outfit not to have signed up for the competition prior to its collapse, gaining favour with UEFA.

They have a tough ask against Manchester City, however, after Pep Guardiola's men collected their first piece of silverware this season in the EFL Cup final.

Using Opta data, we break down the two matches...

Real Madrid v Chelsea: Los Blancos yet to beat Blues or Tuchel

When English football fans consider their country's most-consistent representatives in the Champions League, Chelsea will not be the team that immediately springs to mind for most.

Yet this will be the Blues' eighth semi-final appearance at this stage of the competition, a record among Premier League sides, and they have every reason to feel positive about the Blues' chances here.

They have only lost the first leg in one of their previous seven Champions League semis and head into the tie in good shape domestically, with Thomas Tuchel inspiring a significant improvement in their fortunes since taking over in January.

The German was in charge of PSG as they lost in last season's final to Bayern Munich but boasts a strong record against Madrid, having faced them more often without losing in this competition than any other side (W1 D3). The only other coach to take them on as many times in the Champions League and not lose is Gerard Houllier (P4 W2 D2).

Further to that, Madrid's record against Chelsea is poor, as they've not won any of their three previous meetings. Los Blancos haven't faced any other side more often without winning in their entire history.

A key factor in Chelsea's run to the semis has been their solidity at the back, and Edouard Mendy has more than played his part.

The Frenchman has let in just two goals in his first nine Champions League matches; if he keeps a clean sheet on Tuesday, he will match the record set by ex-Madrid man Keylor Navas for fewest conceded in a goalkeeper's first 10 games.

Paris Saint-Germain v Manchester City: Pep back in the big time

If Madrid and Chelsea are vastly experienced at this level, the same is not exactly true of PSG and City. The Ligue 1 club are playing their third Champions League semi-final, while this is City's second.

Indeed, City have only progressed through one of their prior three semis in all European competitions, winning the Cup Winners' Cup on that occasion in 1970.

PSG are finally getting to grips with UEFA's premier club tournament, however, becoming only the third French team to reach the last four in consecutive seasons - after Saint-Etienne 1975-76 and Marseille 1990-91 in the European Cup - and bidding to be the ninth side to play back-to-back finals.

They will require a first win over City to get there, though, drawing two and losing the other of their previous three meetings. Only against Juventus (eight), Arsenal and Milan (both four) have PSG played more games without winning in their history.

And Guardiola, having finally returned to this stage, has the know-how his players might lack. This a record-equalling eighth Champions League semis appearance, level with Jose Mourinho.

Mauricio Pochettino, then Tottenham manager, eliminated Guardiola in their only past European clash two seasons ago at the quarter-final stage, although the Catalan coach has 10 career wins against the PSG boss.

Pochettino will rely heavily on Neymar, who has either scored (three) or assisted (one) in each of his previous three Champions League last-four outings, while Guardiola can turn to Kevin De Bruyne, with four goals and four assists across his past seven knockout appearances.

De Bruyne scored in both legs when City beat PSG in the 2015-16 quarter-finals and could join Neymar (four), Lionel Messi and Marcus Rashford (both three) in netting against the Parisians in three consecutive Champions League games.

Christian Pulisic says Chelsea are "moving on" without former talisman Eden Hazard and insists he is "not trying to be like" the Real Madrid winger ahead of their Champions League semi-final clash.

Hazard left Stamford Bridge at the end of the 2018-19 season as Pulisic arrived, having agreed a move from Borussia Dortmund in January 2019.

Madrid paid a club-record €100million fee to sign Hazard, who won six major honours in seven years with Chelsea, including the Premier League twice and the Europa League twice.

The Belgium international scored 110 goals and provided 81 assists in all competitions for the Premier League side but has struggled to make the same impact in Spain, dogged by injury woes.

Hazard has just four goals and five assists in 37 games in Madrid colours, although he has been involved in a goal every 165 minutes this season, a vast improvement on one every 309 minutes in 2019-20.

Chelsea have not been serious title contenders in either season since Hazard's departure but will now hope to dump their fit-again former superstar out of the Champions League.

Pulisic, wearing Hazard's number 10 shirt and playing a similar role, has predictably been measured against the 30-year-old.

A strong end to 2019-20 saw Pulisic finish with nine Premier League goals, scoring 0.47 times per 90 minutes, comparable to Hazard's rate of 0.49 when he netted 16 times in his final campaign in England.

Pulisic has found life a little more difficult this season, providing four goals (0.26 per 90), but he is determined to forge his own legacy.

"[Hazard] was an incredible player at this football club, of course," Pulisic told reporters. "It's someone that I've definitely looked up to.

"I'm not comparing myself to him in any way or trying to be like him, I'm my own player and I'm doing my best for this club.

"Obviously I can say he was a massive player for this club so it's an honour to hear comparisons like that, but I still have a ways to go.

"He was an incredible player - he did a lot for this football club - and obviously we're moving on without him.

"I never played with him, so I only know how it is without him, but I think we're in a good place now, in the semi-final of the Champions League with a lot left to play for this season.

"I think this team definitely has a good situation at the moment. It's looking positive."

Like Hazard, Pulisic has had fitness issues, limiting his involvement.

"I feel very confident in my body and my fitness level at the moment," he said. "I've played a string of games. I've never thought of myself as a player who's injury-prone or anything.

"Obviously I've had a tough time the past year and a bit, but really it's about taking care of my body and putting myself in the best position to be available for every single game. I feel good about that."

One such problem - a hamstring blow in last season's FA Cup final - kept Pulisic out of the second leg of a 7-1 aggregate Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich.

Chelsea are hoping this year's campaign ends in more satisfactory fashion.

"I think the guys definitely gained from that, taking that experience from last season, being able to play in the Champions League - a lot of the guys for the first time," Pulisic said.

"The next season you feel more prepared, a bit more confident, and ready to go for this year's competition.

"I think that experience does help and I'm hoping we can take it into the game tomorrow."

Thomas Tuchel believes Chelsea can overcome a lack of Champions League semi-final experience by playing with hunger and enthusiasm when they go up against Real Madrid.

The Blues have made it through to the last four of Europe's premier club competition for the first time since 2013-2014, a season that finished with Madrid winning the trophy in Lisbon.

Los Blancos also won the competition for three successive seasons during Zinedine Zidane's first spell in charge, with many of the key players involved in that impressive hat-trick still at the club now.

However, Tuchel feels his Chelsea squad are in "a good moment" heading into Tuesday's first leg in the Spanish capital.

"Every match I feel that we are able to play on a very high level," Tuchel, who confirmed Mateo Kovacic will miss the game in Madrid through injury, told the media.

"If it's not possible to play our nicest match, we are always able to not let the opponents play their best match – which is also a definition of performance.

"We have a strong bond; I feel a strong bond within the squad. I feel us very involved physically in the games, ready to work together, to suffer together and, when it's needed, to respond to the questions. If it's necessary to fight, then fight; if it's necessary to run, then run.

"We should not expect crazy things from us, but the same again on the highest level.

"The good thing is we have had the experiences together, tough matches, tight matches, very important matches in the Premier League and the FA Cup, so we feel it's a good moment to play this match.

"We want to play hungry; we want to play adventurous. Maybe, considering a lack of experience in semi-finals, to compensate with hunger and enthusiasm."

Both Chelsea and Madrid were involved in the doomed European Super League proposal, leading to speculation they could be kicked out of this season's Champions League as a consequence.

While that has not happened, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has made clear there will be consequences for the 12 clubs involved.

"We deserve to be in the semi-final, like Real Madrid deserve to be," Tuchel said. "We have come a long way.

"Of course we deserve to play in a semi-final. If problems persist on a sports political level then they have to be solved at that level, not on the pitch.

"We deserve, through the competition, to be here."

UEFA announced Champions League reforms last week, including an increase in number of teams from 32 to 36 as the format switches to a league system for the 2024-25 season.

The changes will see more matches for those teams concerned, leaving Tuchel to question why coaches and players were not involved in the planning process.

"I'm not sure if I like it, because I can only see more games out of it," he said when asked about the new-look competition.

"More games in the schedule that we have is very hard for me to be excited at all. All the discussions about Super League made us forget that we have a new format of the Champions League.

"Did they ask any coach about this? I don't think so – they didn't ask me. Did they ask any player about this? I don't think so.

"We have so many new formats, so many more games. It's more, more games. It's not more quality, it's just more games.

"Who should play in these games? We have three substitutes allowed in the Premier League, one of the toughest competitions. No, I'm not happy about this new format at all."

Zinedine Zidane says the idea of Real Madrid being banned from the Champions League for their part in the attempted European Super League breakaway is "absurd".

Madrid were among the 12 founding clubs of the competition that was announced earlier this month, with club president Florentino Perez installed as the Super League's chairman.

But last week, within 48 hours of the plans being confirmed, the six English clubs involved all withdrew, and they were soon followed by Atletico Madrid, Inter and Milan. Juventus remain supportive of the Super League but did acknowledge the collapse of the initial proposal.

Madrid and Barcelona have been defiant since, however, adamant their plans still have merit and are not completely dead.

UEFA is threatening to punish all of the 12, but the English clubs withdrawing early could earn them some leniency, though Zidane is not worried about the idea of Madrid being barred from the Champions League next term.

Speaking ahead of Tuesday's semi-final first leg with Chelsea, Zidane said: "You have already asked me about all this and I have already answered.

"It is absurd to think that we will not be in the Champions League. There is a lot of talk from outside. There is going to be a lot of talk, but we don't control it, I just focus on the game.

"But my opinion is that we all want to see Madrid in the Champions League."

It was also put to Zidane that UEFA's stance could potentially be reflected by the officials being harsh on Madrid against Chelsea.

"The referee is going to do his job and we are going to play football," he replied. "We just have to think about that.

"If we start to think that what is being said is going to harm us, we are screwed. We are going to compete from minute one to 90. The rest, we don't get involved in."

The Champions League fixture follows a tricky LaLiga title tussle for Madrid, whose 0-0 draw with Real Betis on Saturday seeing them miss out on going top of the table.

With leaders Atletico losing to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday and Sevilla beating Granada, just three points separate top from fourth in what is shaping up to be the most thrilling title race in years, but Zidane insists Madrid will not be giving one competition priority over the other.

"We are not going to choose. We are alive in both competitions," he added. "We have had a lot of difficulties this year, but we have always been able to lift ourselves.

"There is a month left and we are going to compete until the end. There is no other thought in my head.

"What we want to do is give everything on the field, without thinking that winning will not be possible."

Raphael Varane is focused only on finishing the season strongly amid rumours the centre-back could be set to end his long association with Real Madrid.

The centre-back is under contract at Madrid – whom he joined a decade ago – until 2022, and while reports in Spain suggest there have been negotiations over a new deal, it remains unclear if he will sign an extension.

Chelsea are one of the teams linked with a move for Varane, who is preparing to go up against the Blues in the Champions League semi-finals.

Ahead of the first leg in the Spanish capital, the France international made clear that speculation surrounding his future will not overshadow a pivotal run-in for Los Blancos, both at home and in Europe.

The reigning LaLiga champions remain firmly in the title race despite a 0-0 draw at home to Real Betis on Saturday.

"My future is clear: my focus is on the end of the season," Varane told the media on Monday.

"We are in a very intense moment and we have to be focused on the games that lie ahead.

"It is normal that the focus is on the end of the season. The message to the fans is that I am 100 per cent committed to the team. 

"We have some challenges that encourage us a lot. I'm focused on giving it my all on the pitch."

Varane missed both meetings with Liverpool in the quarter-finals while isolating following a positive COVID-19 test result.

Madrid were also without injured captain Sergio Ramos for those games, yet Eder Militao and Nacho Fernandez formed an impressive partnership at the heart of a defence that kept a clean sheet against the Reds at Anfield.

Militao had struggled previously since his arrival from Porto but an extended run of games in the starting XI allowed him to showcase his abilities, a situation Varane can relate to during his own career.

"I talk to him a lot. When I had little rhythm, it was difficult to enter the team," Varane said. "I've been through the situation too. You have few minutes to demonstrate a lot, and it's complicated. It requires a lot and it is not easy.

"He has a good mentality and is always in a good mood. We see it on a daily basis and know the quality he has - now he has been able to demonstrate it by playing.

"It's very good to have players like him who are positive and always give their all."

Does a Premier League switch beckon for Raphael Varane?

Varane has starred for Real Madrid, winning LaLiga and Champions League titles.

But Varane could be sacrificed in the Spanish capital, with Chelsea reportedly interested.

 

TOP STORY – CHELSEA FRONTRUNNERS FOR VARANE

Chelsea are ahead of Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain in the race to sign Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane, according to Mundo Deportivo.

Varane has been linked with a move away from Madrid, who are looking to raise funds as they target PSG star Kylian Mbappe and Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland.

United have reportedly emerged as strong suitors but Chelsea are believed to be at the front of the queue to land the France international.

 

ROUND-UP

- Goal, Sport1 and other outlets report Bayern Munich have opened talks with RB Leipzig to hire head coach Julian Nagelsmann. With Hansi Flick set to depart at season's end, Nagelsmann is wanted in Munich.

Jose Mourinho is ready to return to Inter should Nerazzurri boss Antonio Conte exit, claims Calciomercato. Conte is poised to lead Inter to their first Scudetto since 2009-10, when Mourinho oversaw a treble, but the former Italy coach's future is far from certain. Mourinho is available after he was sacked by Tottenham.

- According to Gol Digital, Atletico Madrid are considering a move for Chelsea defender Cesar Azpilicueta.

Roma are targeting Maurizio Sarri as their next head coach, says Corriere dello Sport. Paulo Fonseca is currently at the helm but he is under pressure in the Italian capital. Roma have reportedly already met with ex-Chelsea, Juventus and Napoli coach Sarri to discuss finer details.

Milan have given star goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma one month to decide on a contract extension, reports Tuttosport. Donnarumma is set to become a free agent at the end of the season and the Italy international is yet to re-sign. The likes of United, Chelsea, Juventus, PSG and Madrid have been linked. Milan are reportedly eyeing Lille's Mike Maignan as a possible replacement.

- Bild claims Arsenal are lining up a move for Dortmund's Julian Brandt as a replacement for loanee Martin Odegaard, who is attracting interest from elsewhere. Brandt could be one of many Dortmund players to leave in the off-season as clubs circle Haaland, including Manchester City, Liverpool, Barcelona, United, Chelsea, PSG and Bayern.

UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin has made clear the 12 European Super League clubs must face the consequences for their involvement in the planned breakaway competition.

Less than 48 hours after the official announcement of the tournament, and following a huge public backlash to the plan, the 'big six' from the Premier League – Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham – all ended their involvement.

Ceferin has praised the English clubs for a willingness to admit they made a mistake, but that will not mean they avoid punishment – albeit it is unclear yet what action the governing body will take.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, the UEFA chief revealed how he has placed the teams in different tiers while comparing Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid to those who believe Earth is flat, with that trio still remaining aligned to the initial proposal.

"Everyone has to take consequences for what they did and we cannot pretend nothing happened," Ceferin told the newspaper.

"You cannot do something like that and just say: 'I've been punished because everybody hates me'. They don't have problems because of anyone else but themselves. It's not okay what they did and we will see in next few days what we have to do.

"But for me it's a clear difference between the English clubs and the other six. They pulled out first, they admitted they made a mistake. You have to have some greatness to say: 'I was wrong'.

"For me there are three groups of this 12 — the English six, who went out first, then the other three [Atletico Madrid, Inter and Milan] after them and then the ones who feel that Earth is flat and they think the Super League still exists. And there is a big difference between those.

"But everyone will be held responsible. In what way, we will see. I don't want to say disciplinary process but it has to be clear that everyone has to be held responsible in a different way.

"Is it disciplinary? Is it the decision of the executive committee? We will see. It's too early to say."

There was widespread condemnation of the Super League from fans, governing bodies and former players alike, leading to financial backers JP Morgan to admit they "misjudged how the deal would be viewed by the wider football community".

UEFA announced changes to the Champions League format on Monday, including an increase from 32 to 36 clubs as the current group stage system is to be shelved in favour of a single league.

Clubs will get to play four extra matches per season, with the top eight in the final table advancing through to the last 16. Those placed between ninth and 24th will enter a play-off round to decide who else will qualify for the knockout stages, while those 25th and lower are eliminated and do not enter the Europa League.

The radical reforms to the competition are scheduled to come into place for the 2024-25 season.

Zinedine Zidane portrayed a relaxed figure despite Real Madrid suffering something of a setback in their title challenge as they were held to a 0-0 draw by Real Betis.

Madrid were looking to go top of the table – at least until Sunday – with a victory at Valdebebas, but in the end they were arguably fortunate to leave with a point.

Betis had the best chances of the match, with Guido Rodriguez and Borja Iglesias spurning glorious opportunities in the second half.

While Madrid managed five shots on target, their cumulative expected goals value of 1.02 was only marginally more than Betis' 0.92.

It was an underwhelming showing ahead of their Champions League semi-final first leg against Chelsea on Tuesday, while they will finish the weekend five points off the top of LaLiga if Atletico beat Athletic Bilbao.

But Zidane stressed there was no need to panic, even if he was irritated by Madrid's issues in attack during Saturday's stalemate.

"We lose two points and we don't like it but there is still a lot of LaLiga to go, it doesn't end today," he said.

"The rest of the teams have to play and we'll see what happens. We now focus on Tuesday's game.

"Defensively we were very good, but offensively we lacked many things. We lacked something, we were not fine at the top end of the pitch.

"We are prepared for the next game, which is going to be the most difficult of the whole season."

One positive for Madrid was the return of Eden Hazard, who made only his second LaLiga appearance since the end of January.

The Belgium winger had been blighted by calf and thigh issues but looked lively in his cameo, suggesting he could play a role against his former club over the next couple of weeks.

"I was very happy to see Eden Hazard because it was important to have him with us again," Zidane said.

"We know the quality he has and I hope to be able to count on him until the end of the season."

Real Madrid suffered another setback in the title race as they were held to a 0-0 draw at home to Real Betis in LaLiga on Saturday.

Zinedine Zidane's men would have gone top – ahead of Atletico Madrid due to a better head-to-head record – at least until Sunday had they beaten Betis, but their inability to find a way past Claudio Bravo means they could end the weekend five points behind the leaders.

The contest did not truly come to life until the second half and Madrid could easily have found themselves trailing, with Guido Rodriguez and Borja Iglesias guilty of wasting great chances.

Opportunities of a similar quality were by no means a regular occurrence for Madrid, who will hoping Athletic Bilbao can do them a favour against Atletico on Sunday, with the four-way Spanish title race looking set for a thrilling conclusion.

Madrid got very little out of Betis in what was a largely cagey first half that saw only one shot on target.

That chance fell to Karim Benzema in the 25th minute, as the Frenchman had his effort turned around the post by Bravo.

Former Madrid youngster Sergio Canales went close at the other end soon after, narrowly missing the left-hand post with a 20-yard effort.

The hosts almost got lucky nine minutes into the second half as Rodrygo's cross hit the crossbar with Bravo seemingly beaten.

Though they should have found themselves trailing a few moments later.

Rodriguez did the hard part as he raced past Eder Militao and Raphael Varane, but upon penetrating the penalty area he hit a scuffed left-footed shot straight at the relieved Thibaut Courtois.

Iglesias then spurned an even better opportunity on the break, Courtois blocking the ball as the striker attempted to prod it past him after Canales' pinpoint cross.

Much like Rodriguez, Vinicius Junior failed to apply the decisive finish after a brilliant run of his own, following it up with a feeble effort that caused Bravo no worries.

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