That is six goals in two Champions League games for Karim Benzema. Three against Paris Saint-German, three more last night. What a player he has turned out to be. After the many claims for Gareth Bale, and the emerging talent of Vinicius Junior, it is Benzema who has blossomed outside the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo.

This was his 37th goal in 36 matches in 2021-22 and his 11th in the Champions League, a record for a French player.

Yet, leave the numbers aside, and this was simply a masterclass in the art of finishing and leading the line. Benzema frightened the life out of Chelsea’s back-line.

He crept upon them, he vanished into thin air and reappeared when they least expected it, he made them jittery and error-prone. His two first-half headers were fabulous, powerful, and accurate in equal measure, and his third less than a minute after the second-half restart, ripped the heart out of Chelsea’s revival. They have a mountain to climb now.

It is hard to imagine them being the necessary two, or three, goals clear of Madrid when scoring is so plainly a point of weakness these days. Chelsea clearly thought they were getting a Benzema-like presence when they bought Romelu Lukaku last summer. They were mistaken.

There are worries all over the pitch for Chelsea right now. While Benzema was making history at one end, Chelsea were reaching a milestone of a different sort. In the 24th minute, when Real Madrid’s second went in, it was the sixth opposition goal scored at Stamford Bridge without reply – starting with the first of Brentford’s four on Saturday.

That is a first for the Roman Abramovich era. The last time Chelsea were six in arrears at home, Ken Bates was chairman and it was a previous century. Michael Hughes scored an equalizer for Wimbledon on December 26, 1997 – and on January 4, 1998, Manchester United raced to a 5-0 lead in an FA Cup tie. A lot of water has passed under the Bridge since then, as they say.

This may be just a badly-timed blip in an otherwise commendable season given the circumstances, but it is going to be desperately hard for Chelsea to retrieve the match from here. They lack the greatest quality Madrid possess – a world-class finisher.

Benzema showed how it should be done, Lukaku, when he finally got on the field for Christian Pulisic after 64 minutes, showed only how it shouldn’t. He missed a gilt-edged-headed chance, and another that was marginally more difficult.

Making the best of their chances is Chelsea’s weakness – Thibaut Courtois’ best save thwarted a defender, Cesar Azpilicueta – and Thomas Tuchel on the touchline looked manic, slightly desperate. Apart from when one of his own players stood heavily on his foot, Carlo Ancelotti remained impassive. Maybe it’s his character, maybe it’s his experience, or maybe it’s the comfort of having Benzema at number nine.

By contrast, Tuchel was like a dervish early on, screaming at his team to get forward, to get at Madrid in the driving rain. Yet despite the recent thrashing by Barcelona, despite the bizarre speculation around the future of Ancelotti, Madrid are a different proposition right now, too. They are 12 points clear at the top of La Liga and, in Benzema, have arguably the finest goalscorer in Europe right now.

Benzema is what Lukaku should be. A big presence, swift of mind and movement, who could lead the line, bully or lose defenders according to his fancy. Lukaku initially sat on the subs bench, as far out of it as he was here in the days before his loan to West Brom. Benzema was masterful. Chelsea’s defenders did not know where he was half the time, dropping off to find space, only to reappear in position A. His headers were goals the moment the ball met his skull, not just powerful like Harry Maguire’s famous slab but with the precision of Novak Djokovic’s forehand return. Both headers were from range, neither afforded Chelsea goalkeeper Edouard Mendy much chance.

And Madrid could have been a goal up even earlier had the excellent Vinicius Junior not hit the bar after just 15 minutes. Federico Valverde, also impressive, was played in by Benzema’s lovely backheel and slipped the ball across to Vinicius, who left Mendy clutching at air, but was thwarted by the bar. And then it was Benzema’s show.

The two in three minutes knocked Chelsea through a loop but it was the third, scored so early in the second half, that reduced Tuchel’s best-laid plans to ashes. Chelsea had pulled one back by then, Stamford Bridge was boisterous and loud with anticipation. Benzema curbed that enthusiasm.

Real Madrid’s first showed what makes him such an exceptional talent. He was crucial to the build-up, playing a sweet one-two with Vinicius, before delaying his run into the box just enough to take up a position out of reach of the central defenders.

Vinicius had enough time to check Benzema’s position and cut the ball back, and the striker simply steered his header past Mendy with the power of a shot. There was so much control in the touch, such accuracy, that the goalkeeper was helpless.

Just three minutes later, same again. This time it was the ageless Luka Modric providing from the right side and Benzema again timing his arrival to perfection, checking and getting between Thiago Silva and Andreas Christensen to send another header, loopier this time but entirely intended, into a distant corner away from Mendy. In that instant, the tie looked done.

And it may well have been had Benzema completed his hat-trick before half-time. It was his only mistake, missing after Vinicius had cut another one back from the by-line. By then, Chelsea had scored, too. A deep ball from Jorginho, met by Kai Havertz’s stooping header five minutes before half-time. A lifeline – swiftly retracted by Benzema within seconds of the half-time restart.

A long clearance upfield was harvested by Mendy 30 yards from goal but, under little pressure, he played a desperately poor pass to Antonio Rudiger. The defender was left in trouble, but compounded the error with one of his own, getting a touch but only into the path of Benzema who passed it into an empty net from distance. A dismal Madrid audition for Rudiger but a landmark for Benzema, whose 11th Champions League goal beat a European Cup record set by the French legend, Just Fontaine, for Reims in 1958-59.

Clubs the size of Real Madrid do not tend to have bogey teams because they beat almost everybody almost all of the time – but they had never beaten Chelsea, in five previous meetings. That changed on Wednesday night. One imagines a lot may change in the coming years, with Chelsea on the rebound from calamities personal and public.

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Courtesy: Daily Mail UK

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