Karim Benzema. Again. Not three this time, but one. The one that broke Chelsea’s hearts.

They will not get the credit they deserve for this performance, that is a pity. It will go down as a defeat when on the night Chelsea won; it will go down as a victory by a margin of one, when on 90 minutes Chelsea led by two, which would have been a first for an English team in the Bernabeu.

Chelsea lost in extra time when Benzema scored and they did not. And they lost in the first leg, by giving themselves such an obstacle to climb. Yet the rest of it was theirs. This was a great European performance, which is probably why it hurts so much to be playing no further part.

Yes, Chelsea conceded twice having raced to a 3-0 lead in 75 minutes. Yet Real Madrid are a good side. It was always going to be hard to contain them once the reality of elimination hit home. And that moment of revelation occurred when Timo Werner scored Chelsea’s third of the night. Even at 2-0 down, Madrid seemed to be sleepwalking.
Suddenly, when the aggregate score shifted to 4-3 in Chelsea’s favour, an alarm went off. Wake up, wake up, wake up. And they did.

The goal that sent the game to extra-time was a thing of true beauty. N’Golo Kante’s pass was cut out and Luka Modric played the pass of the night to Rodrygo, hit with the outside of his boot with stunning accuracy. The substitute met it on the volley at the far post to bring Madrid back to life. Even had away goals still counted in UEFA competition the outcome would have been the same. A 3-1 win for the away team in both ties. Who would have imagined it?

And there was always the worry that this was Chelsea done. That the superhuman effort to score three at the Bernabeu – the first English team to do that since Manchester United in a drawn semi-final in 1968 – could not be continued for another 30 minutes. So it proved, even if the deciding goal had a degree of good fortune. It was that great double act that did it – Vinicius Junior provider, Benzema scorer – but the reason the striker had the space was that Antonio Rudiger slipped at a vital time.

It gave Benzema a free header from Vincius’ cross, and he made no mistake. Rudiger was stranded, and so was Edouard Mendy. And Benzema’s record of a goal a game in 2021-22 continues.

It means Chelsea, the champions, are out, but what a show. Thomas Tuchel claimed the tie was over having lost so comprehensively at home, but that was just a challenge to his players. And they rose to it magnificently.

Prior to kick-off, as often happens at the home of the big European clubs, the fans unfurled a giant banner, high on graphic content and message. This showed a long-haired regal figure – like Lear, or Neptune – contemptuously throwing down a deck of cards on which could be seen the silhouetted image of European Cups and Champions League trophies.

‘Don’t mess with the King,’ read the text, a warning to Chelsea not to get too cocky at the home of mighty Real Madrid, 13 times champions of Europe.

Yet, for 75 minutes, Chelsea did mess. Indeed, they did a little more. They tweaked the King’s nose; gave him a kick in the seat of his pants. Chelsea rocked the Bernabeu by scoring after 15 minutes, then dialled up the tension by taking charge of much of what followed.

Madrid were unsure, even hesitant. When Reece James was booked for pulling back Vinicius after ten minutes, the omens looked bad. Vinicius is arguably Madrid’s greatest forward threat, certainly as the provider, and James had been detailed to keep up with him.

Now he faced 80 minutes of trying to do that without drawing further attention from referee Szymon Marciniak, of Poland. Yet five minutes later it was Madrid who were given cause to worry. Chelsea went ahead.

It was a flick by Ruben Loftus-Cheek that caught Madrid napping. The ball fell to Werner, who knocked it forward, not entirely intentionally. So that was good fortune for Chelsea, Luck played no part in what followed, mind. Mason Mount was the recipient of Werner’s pass/deflection and the goal opened up in front of him.

He took a couple of strides and planted it in the corner, with Thibaut Courtois nowhere. It means he overtakes Romelu Lukaku as a goalscorer this season, second only to Kai Havertz. It was also his first goal in the Champions League since last year’s semi-final. That was against Real Madrid, too.

The hosts remained on the back foot even into the second half. Courtois made a hash of trying to avoid conceding a corner and almost conceded a goal instead. He pushed the ball out, then had to make the ground in a 50-50 with Mount. Referee Marciniak gave a foul against the Chelsea man, which was predictable, but still harsh.

And yet it was referee error that helped give Chelsea parity within minutes. James’ shot from the edge of the area spun viciously making it look as if it had caught a deflection. Replays showed it hadn’t – he just didn’t strike it right – but by then it was too late. Marciniak had signalled a Chelsea ball.

Mount took the corner from the right but it invariably has the same target – Rudiger. And, again, he delivered. A quite beautiful header steered into the corner of Thibaut’s goal. Chelsea were level – and quite comfortable getting there, too.

Of course, the Madrid onslaught was still to begin. Yet, at times, the experience we had perceived as such an advantage looked anything but. There were seven of Madrid’s starting line-up with 50 or more appearances in this competition compared to two from Chelsea.

Yet Chelsea often looked hungrier and more energetic. Madrid had the experience but this is also an ageing team. Been there, seen it, done it. Maybe they thought they had this tie won in the first leg, too.

Instead, they fell further behind. It was a great goal, too, following on from Werner’s pair at Southampton. Here was a further glimpse of the striker we thought they had bought.

Mateo Kovacic played the through pass and Werner checked inside, taking out two men, before striking a shot that Courtois could not keep out.

Could it have panned out differently? Certainly, had VAR not disallowed an earlier goal from Marcos Alonso. Before Werner scored, Alonso had the ball in the net but was denied by Tomasz Kwiatkowski, the VAR. Kante played in Alonso, whose shot was blocked by Dani Carvajal, ricocheting back and striking his leg, before glancing a hand. Alonso lashed the ball into the net, but VAR wanted a second look.

The touch on his hand was enough to rule it out. Unintentional, unavoidable, accidental, it was all of those things. And harsh, when it was the initial contact with the leg that put the ball in forwarding motion.

In extra time, the frustration grew too much. Kai Havertz missed a free header, Jorginho screwed a shot wide from close range. Thomas Tuchel, and his captain Cesar Azpilicueta, were both booked for getting over-excited with officials on the touchline. But it was an exciting night. Exciting, pulsating, and ultimately fruitless. It can be a cruel game, sometimes.


Courtesy: Daily Mail UK

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