José Mourinho may have essentially called him the fake Ronaldo, but the reality check administered tonight by Cristiano Ronaldo and the well-oiled Real Madrid machine was ever so real. The man we shall call Cristiano from here on out - after all, there is in fact just one "real" Ronaldo - single-handedly decided the match with two absolute moments of brilliance, a trademark free kick breaking a 1-1 deadlock on the half hour, a devastating header delivering the killer blow on the hour mark. As has been normal for preseason, the match devolved into a pure fitness exercise once the substitutions started en masse, but prior to that, it was almost entertaining. Despite the scoreline.
A preseason match to end all preseason matches, the Chelsea vs. Real Madrid clash in the final of the Guinness International Champions Cup was hyped well and far above all basically meaningless matches in recent memory. It almost became meaningful even, with the shared history between the teams adding extra spice and Mourinho's mind-games with Cristiano adding extra bite. The delayed start and the extravagant pre-match ceremonies only added to the occasion. We almost failed to notice that Juan Mata wasn't with the team. He was last seen at the pool, but obviously he's now on the first flight to Barcelona with main man David Luiz.* John Obi Mikel was also MIA.
* No, they're not; although there's been no official word (yet) on why Mata (or Mikel) stayed behind at the team's base of US operations.
When the dust from the fireworks settled and fake Twitter lineups were sorted out, Mourinho's chosen eleven seemed to lend itself to either a 4-3-3 but perhaps also a 4-2-3-1. Romelu Lukaku led the line. Ashley Cole, John Terry, Gary Cahill, and Branislav Ivanovic comprised the tall, strong back four, which was then shielded by Marco van Ginkel. Beyond that, everybody else seemed to just run about a bit, with varying degrees of success.
Real Madrid started like bottled lightning and quickly overran any and all Chelsea midfielders. The wonderfully imperious duo of Sami Khedira and Luka Modric had no trouble with Frank Lampard, who looked every bit a player out there for the first time this preseason, Marco van Ginkel, who sometimes looked out of his depth, and Ramires, who was doing the usual Ramires things, all of which look majestic when he's running and far less impressive when he's not. It was the Brazilian who would allow another Brazilian free passage through the midfield for the opening goal.
With everybody concentrating on Mr. Step-over on the left wing - and Branislav Ivanovic, combined with Oscar generally doing a decent job of it - Marcelo had free reign. Easily bypassing the static midfield with an incisive angled run not for the first time - Ramires's failure to track the run compounded further by his giveaway that started the entire Madrid possession in the first place - Marcelo found himself bearing down on the Chelsea goal with just Gary Cahill left to pose any challenge. Unfortunately, Cahill's challenge remained a theoretical ideal to strive for as the defender instead decided to back down and then back down and then back down some more, until Marcelo had enough of the charade and calmly slotted the ball through Cahill's legs low into the far corner. Petr Cech had no chance. Barely thirteen minutes had passed.
The goal highlighted Madrid's early dominance and things were looking ominous. But in a finish eerily similar to the one he produced versus the other giants of Spanish football, Ramires would bring Chelsea immediately back into the proceedings and make up for his earlier shortcomings.
For the first time in the match, a continuous and meaningful spell of possession for Chelsea - from the restart to the celebration - saw the ball eventually arrive at Eden Hazard's feet. The Belgian, often in the discussion as Chelsea's best player, has had an indifferent preseason and today was largely no different outside of a brief spell in the second half, but in this one instance, his entry pass to Romelu Lukaku - from one Belgian to another - would prove useful. Lukaku's one touch layoff perfectly coincided with a glorious Ramires burst through the center of the Madrid defense and suddenly it was Ramires v. Iker Casillas, 1-v-1. Casillas charged, Ramires chipped, and the match was tied.
Buoyant Chelsea and Madrid matched wits from this point on, resulting in a mostly even battle could've swung in either direction. Oscar's penalty shout was somewhat harshly ignored - Sergio Ramos clearly kicked the Chelsea man in the knee and the fact that this would end up as not the only penalty not called on Ramos in the first half (see also: Frank Lampard hauled down just as he was about to shoot) would rankle a bit more if this was, say, the Champions League. At the other end, Cristiano's shouts for free kicks were never likely to be ignored and rightly so, the Portuguese super star was receiving no pleasantries from John Terry and Ivanovic.
It was the latter's foul that would set up the free kick about 30 yards from goal with 30 minutes on the clock. We all knew what was coming. Even though his conversion rate is nowhere near godly, most like to praise his "technique" and his showman's touch in the setup & run-up as such. He had already blasted one well over, but this one was almost perfection. Power, pace, precision; up & over; a moment of brilliance making all the difference that's fit to put on the scoresheet. Cech got a finger to it, but there was very little he could truly do.
The advertising banner for this competition on the far side of the pitch read "no friendlies" and the rest of the first half lived up to that billing. Tempers flared - unsurprising with the likes of Pepe and John Terry out there - and both Frank Lampard (who seemed to develop a sudden distaste for Modric) and Alvaro Arbeloa (who had his hands full even with a below-par Hazard) picked up bookings. Cristiano's intensity was on another level though - Mourinho's mind games perhaps ill-advised in retrospect - and not even Marco van Ginkel managed to match it on our side.
At least it was entertaining, despite Chelsea's over-reliance on reverting back to the style of play prominent in the bygone era of the Drogba-Lampard-Terry axis. And although I'm not a fan of the incessant comparisons, the young Belgian man-mountain was at his most Drogba-like in the first half. Left to his own devices up top, he did wonderfully to provide an outlet, hold up play, and then lay off the ball to bring the advancing midfield into the attack. In more cohesive attacks, his runs opened up space for Lampard and Van Ginkel to test Casillas. It was another good performance for the striker who's surely worked his way to the top of the depth chart by this point.
Chelsea made three changes at half time, bringing on Fernando Torres, Kevin De Bruyne, and Victor Moses, and for the next 15 minutes, the Blues were rampant. Moses's introduction finally provided Marcelo with some defensive duties, while De Bruyne was spraying pin-point accurate passes at will. Meanwhile, Hazard must have gotten a severe talking to, for he was back to the Hazard we know and love, tormenting all comers with flicks, tricks, and direct running. On 52 minutes, he got on to the end of a Ramires through ball, but unlike the provider, he chose to go under instead of over the advancing Casillas and Chelsea remained a goal down.
Unfortunately, soon after, the match would be over as a relevant contest. Isco - his talent yet another sparkling jewel in Real Madrid's crown - swung in a cross that looked harmless at conception; there were four Chelsea and zero Real Madrid players around the six-yard box after all. Perhaps awed by the perfect shape of the spinning ball as it arced through the humid Miami air however, they all stood transfixed; John Terry looking particularly rooted into the ground, although Ashley Cole didn't acquit himself much better either. At the same time, Cristiano was steaming into the area and having met the cross unchallenged, absolutely powered it into the back of the Chelsea net. Game. Set. Match.
Technically there were still thirty minutes left to play, but with both sides substituting liberally, all semblance of cohesion and competition dissipated rather quickly. At some point Cesar Azpilicueta, André Schürrle, and Michael Essien made an appearance, let the official record show, while Álvaro Morata scored with a rather slick heel flick - alas, from an offside position - at the other end. The referee's final whistle may have actually served as an alarm clock for many of the 67,273 in attendance, rousing them from their shallow slumber and signaling the start of the race towards the parking lot.
As always, we should be vary of assigning too much value to preseason results. In this one, Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo especially were, for longer stretches, better and more incisive. They looked the more cohesive, the more willing, and often the more fit side. So far this preseason, Chelsea may have made easy work of Asian and Italian opposition (another one of whom awaits on Saturday), but today their shortcomings were exposed a bit. Lacking a true game-changer like Cristiano, a true midfield general like Khedira (Van Ginkel and then Essien tried as well as they could, to be fair), or a true midfield distributor like Modric, Chelsea were often a step late and a thought slow.
Except for the first few minutes of the second half, Chelsea's reactive tactics were simply not measuring up to the challenge. And when that gameplan - often manifesting in nine men behind the ball - was combined with criminally static defending and midfield positioning, Real made us pay. Assuming Mourinho sorts things out, today will have proven a much-needed reality check.
Ok, let's just go with that assumption for now.