Chelsea 1 Real Madrid 3
Sometimes the old ones are the best. By the end, the notion that Chelsea would blow Real Madrid away felt utterly preposterous. Sometimes there is nothing else to do but sit back and marvel at the majesty of Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Karim Benzema, whose clinical hat-trick leaves Chelsea's defence of their European title hanging by a thread.
This was a regal display from Madrid's thirtysomethings. Carlo Ancelotti, a veteran of these clashes, outwitted Thomas Tuchel. Modric and Kroos were magnificent in midfield. Chelsea did not know where to look and they could be in for a humiliation if they continue to give a striker of Benzema's gifts this many chances when this quarter-final resumes at the Bernabéu next week. Yet there had been a sense that Madrid would not be able to live with Chelsea's power.
The Spaniards had struggled physically when these sides met in the last four last season and it was clear Tuchel wanted to play on that history. The emphasis on speed from Chelsea was obvious from Tuchel's decision to pick his most mobile front three, Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic buzzing urgently around Kai Havertz, and at first it was hard not to fear for Madrid's chances in midfield, where the energy of N'Golo Kanté was expected to push Casemiro, Kroos and Modric to the limit.
Indeed the signs for Chelsea were encouraging when Mount rattled into Kroos after eight minutes. At that stage, with the German lying on the turf and perhaps wondering if he had the legs for this, Madrid appeared to be in trouble. Chelsea were pressing ferociously and it seemed that something had to give when Havertz pushed Eder Militão off the ball, forcing the Madrid centre back to drag the German down and concede a free-kick that allowed Reece James to increase the pressure by drawing a fine save from Thibaut Courtois.
Yet perhaps Chelsea got carried away. They defended terribly when they lost 4-1 to Brentford on Saturday and Madrid soon found space to create. There was a warning when Benzema and Fede Valverde released Vinícius Junior on the left, only for the winger to ram his shot against the bar after swerving inside Andreas Christensen. And it was telling that Tuchel had grown edgy even before the opening goal arrived, the German unable to hide his irritation at how much room Madrid had on the break every time Chelsea gave away possession.
Soon it was Madrid who were in charge, the ageing trio of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro beginning to pull the strings in midfield. The mood had changed and Chelsea were not quick enough to smell danger. They did not seem to realise that Madrid had identified James as a weak link on the right. There was too much space behind the Chelsea wing back and that frailty would prove pivotal in the 21st minute, the dangerous Vinícius playing a stunning double one-two with Benzema and crossing for the France striker to send a glorious header beyond Édouard Mendy.
It was a superb goal, made possible by Benzema's ability to drop deep and link play, and Madrid soon pulled further clear. Valverde, preferred to Marco Asensio on the right, played the ball back to Modric and when nobody closed the Croatian down he swung the ball in for Benzema, who peeled away from Antonio Rüdiger, Thiago Silva and Christensen before beating Mendy with another lovely header.
All over the place at the back, Chelsea needed a rethink. The crowd was silent and although the hosts halved the deficit before the break, Havertz heading Jorginho’s bending ball past Thibaut Courtois, it still did not feel particularly convincing.
It was certainly difficult to fool Tuchel, especially as Benzema still had time to spurn a glaring chance before half-time. Kanté and Jorginho had been poor in midfield. Christensen, who is expected to join Barcelona this summer, lacked focus. Pulisic and Mount had done little. César Azpilicueta, out of position at left wing back, was struggling to track Valverde’s runs inside.
Ancelotti, who only travelled to London on Wednesday morning, had clearly spent his time in quarantine coming up with a clever plan. Madrid were toying with Chelsea and Tuchel was quick to make adjustments, Mateo Kovacic and Hakim Ziyech replacing Kanté and Christensen at half-time.
Unfortunately nobody will ever be able to tell if those substitutions were the right ones. They felt irrelevant when Mendy, whose distribution has been shaky for a while, came out of his area to mop up a long ball in the 46th minute and sold Rüdiger short with a dreadful pass, a hush falling over the stadium as Benzema nipped in and completed his hat-trick by rolling the ball into the empty net from 25 yards.
Chelsea were deflated. They tried to muster a fightback but they had none of Madrid’s poise. It was a mess, summed up by Romelu Lukaku missing a sitter after coming off the bench. – Guardian